Paul Bremer knows what it is like to preside over a country scarred by years of brutal dictatorship and religious war. Bremer briefly governed Iraq as the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority after the U.S. invaded the country and removed Saddam Hussein from power a decade ago.
Although Obamacare and a possible government shutdown have pushed foreign affairs from the headlines, the U.S. has again in recent months contemplated military action against a Baathist dictatorship wielding weapons of mass destruction.
Bremer, whose tenure in Iraq lasted from May 2003 through June 2004, now leads a quiet life in Maryland, where he crafts oil paintings and heads World TEAM Sports, a charity for the disabled. He told The Daily Caller News Foundation that he thinks there are parallels between Iraq and Syria.
Destroying chemical weapons is a “very complicated operation” that requires security forces on the ground, highly specialized weapons inspectors, and a capacity to remove the weapons or materials, he said.
The amount of chemical weapons that Syria is storing is massive, 40 or 50 times the amount late Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi had, he said. Bremer doesn’t expect Syria will provide much help with information about the location of the weapons that the government reportedly used recently to kill 1,400 of its own people.
Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad is a “rational and clever man” and he will use this negotiation as his “security blanket,” Bremer explained. If his government is directing inspectors where to go and providing them with protection, then he becomes part of the equation and essential to the operation’s success.
Bremer argues that Assad, like Hussein, “must go.” If that is ever accomplished, the United States and the international community are going to have “to pay a lot of attention to providing some kind of security in Syria while a new government is put in place,” he said. Deploying enough troops to curtail violence and stabilize the country was “one of the key lessons from Iraq.”
Bremer believes that United States did not have enough troops in Iraq to secure the country. A report conducted by the nonpartisan Rand Corporation, which studied post-conflict situations, convinced Bremer that Iraq needed around 480,000 troops stationed there, more than double the U.S. presence at its highest point. If the same metrics were applied to post-Assad Syria, that would require 400,000 to 500,000 troops, said Bremer.
“American troops are a force for good when they are employed as part of the overall American strategy of engagement,” Bremer said, before acknowledging, “it is certainly not politically possible for America to put in that number of troops.” He added that some non-U.S. forces could also be utilized. “There may be some Syrian army troops who can be properly vetted and determined that they are not loyal to Assad anymore. You may be able to use some of them,” Bremer said.
Bremer disagrees with those who say that the U.S. shouldn’t trust the Syrian rebels. He says that “sources from the inside” have told him that a majority of the rebels — roughly 75 to 80 percent — is reliable.
Not all experts take this view. A report by the consulting firm HIS Jane estimated that only around 30 percent of the rebel forces were fighting for secular causes, with the rest being Islamists of various stripes.
Bremer further argued that once America identifies which forces can be trusted, they must be properly armed. Ak47 and other “soft weapons” are not going to cut it, he said. The Free Syrian Army needs to be provided with “heavy weapons” that can stop tanks, including “heavy air weapons.”
Violence in Iraq calmed down when President Bush ordered a surge of troops in 2007. After President Obama removed American forces from Iraq in 2011, the monthly death tolls swung upwards again. Today, Iraq is one of the world’s most dangerous countries, second only to Syria.
Bremer believes the abrupt end to America’s involvement in Iraq was a mistake. There should not be an “automatic moment where you can say ‘that is as long as we can stay,’” he said. The Obama administration was unable to negotiate an extended military presence with the Iraqi government.
Bremer admits that Iraq today is not what he imagined success looking like, but he still thinks the country is better off. Despite the rampant violence, he said, “representative government serves the people better and it serves American interests better.”
“Getting from longtime dictatorships like in Iraq and Syria to a stable representative government is hard work,” Bremer concluded. “[But] my view is that our long term interest in this region and elsewhere is to promote representative government.”
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