As a Sunni militancy overtakes large parts of Iraq, former U.N.-Arab League special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi joins us to discuss the escalating Iraqi conflict, the long-term impact of the 2003 U.S. invasion, and the crisis in neighboring Syria. A former Algerian freedom fighter who went on to become Algeria’s foreign minister, Brahimi has been deeply involved in Middle Eastern diplomacy for decades. He has worked on many of the world’s major conflicts from Afghanistan and Iraq to South Africa. Brahimi resigned as the U.N.-Arab League special envoy for Syria last month after a lengthy effort that failed to bring about peace talks between the Syrian government and rebel groups. On the legacy of the U.S. invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq, Brahimi says: “The biggest mistake was to invade. I am tempted to say that every time there was a [U.S.] choice between something right and something wrong, not very often the right option was taken.” On Syria, Brahimi says the conflict is “an infected wound … if not treated properly, it will spread — and this is what is happening.”
AMY GOODMAN: Sunni militants have seized part of Iraq’s largest oil refinery located in the northern Iraqi city of Baiji. The militants reportedly now control three-quarters of the refinery complex. Meanwhile, Shiite families are leaving the city of Baquba in droves out of fear the militants from ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, will soon seize the city. Baquba is located just 40 miles from Baghdad. Many analysts say the fighting in Iraq has become a proxy war between the Sunni-led Saudi Arabia and Shiite-led Iran. On Tuesday, Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, vowed on live television to protect Shiite shrines in Iraq. Rouhani said many Iranians have already signed up to go to Iraq to fight. This came as Iraq’s Shiite-led Cabinet accused Saudi Arabia of promoting genocide in Iraq by backing Sunni militants.
In Washington, President Obama is scheduled to meet today with the four top congressional leaders. There are conflicting reports of his plan of action. The Wall Street Journal reports Obama has decided against immediate airstrikes in Iraq, but The New York Times reports Obama is considering what the paper described as a “targeted, highly selective campaign” of airstrikes. One official told the Times the campaign would most likely use drones and could last for a prolonged period.
Joining us to discuss the situation in Iraq and across the wider region is Lakhdar Brahimi, who resigned his post last month as the United Nations-Arab League special envoy for Syria. Brahimi has been deeply involved in Middle Eastern diplomacy for decades. He’s a former Algerian freedom fighter who went on to become Algeria’s foreign minister. As a diplomat, he has worked on many of the world’s biggest conflicts, from Afghanistan and Iraq, from Haiti to South Africa. He’s a member of the Elders, a group of retired statesmen formed in July 2007 at the initiative of Nelson Mandela; it was originally chaired by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, now by Kofi Annan.
Democracy Now!’s Nermeen Shaikh and I interviewed Lakhdar Brahimi on Tuesday. He’s in Paris, France. I started by asking him to respond to what’s happening in Iraq right now.
LAKHDAR BRAHIMI: Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham have invaded and taken control of the second-largest city in Iraq, which is absolutely extraordinary. That is the city of Mosul. I understand that they went down also and took a part—or, you know, maybe they are still there—of the city of Tikrit, the birthplace of Saddam Hussein, and that they were marching on Baghdad, and they have been stopped somewhere. And I doubt very much that they will enter Baghdad in any significant manner. But this indicates the fragility of the state of Iraq that has been created by the Americans after they invaded the country in 2003. It’s really extraordinary that the state, as important and as rich, as a matter of fact, as Iraq, cannot protect the second-largest city in the country.
It also vindicates what the secretary-general of the United Nations and myself have been saying for months, years even. And that is that the situation in Syria is like an infected wound: If it is not treated properly, it will spread. And this is what is happening. You know, the secretary-general has very often warned that if Syria is not attended to properly, then most, if not all, of its neighbors were in danger. And this is one of the neighbors of Syria.
Of course, it had—it has its own problems. And this latest development is an addendum, something that has come on top of the problems that were there. Those problems were that the country was more and more divided along sectarian lines, and the corruption was rife, and the government was not capable—has not been capable of re-establishing services, like water, electricity, sewages and so on, at the level they existed under Saddam, when the country was under extremely severe sanctions.
So, this is where we are. Syria is—you know, there is fighting there. There is killing. There is—bombardments are taking place. And people are—you know, there is no development taking place, and people are leaving their homes, their villages, their cities, either remaining inside the country as internally displaced people or going to neighboring countries like Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, in particular. And quite a few of them have gone to Iraq, actually.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Ambassador Brahimi, you mentioned the complicity of the United States invasion of 2003 in the present situation in Iraq.
LAKHDAR BRAHIMI: Yes.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: I want to turn to comments made by former British Prime Minister Tony Blair over the weekend. He said, in fact, the 2003 invasion of Iraq was not responsible for the violent insurgency now engulfing the country. He was speaking on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show. Let’s just go to a clip.
TONY BLAIR: So my point is very simple: Even if you left Saddam in place in 2003, then, when 2011 happened and you had the Arab revolutions going through Tunisia and Libya and Yemen and Bahrain and Egypt and Syria, you would have still had a major problem in Iraq. Indeed, you can see what happens when you leave the dictator in place, as has happened with Assad now. But if you say to me, would I prefer a situation where we’d left Saddam in place in 2003—do I think the region would be safer, more stable, if we’d done that—my answer to that is unhesitatingly no.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Ambassador Brahimi, that was former British Prime Minister Tony Blair speaking over the weekend.
LAKHDAR BRAHIMI: Yes.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Could you respond to the comments he made about the 2003 invasion?
LAKHDAR BRAHIMI: You know, the situation in Iraq was extremely bad, and definitely it was called the “Republic of Fear” with reason. You know, you cannot justify post facto an invasion that was absolutely horrible. I mean, first of all, it was unjustified. Second—I mean, it was built on a lie. You know, the weapons of mass destructions were just in the imagination of some people who wanted to invade Iraq. Second, things have—I mean, justifications were invented after—democracy, getting rid of a dictator, and I don’t know what. That very dictator, when he was just as a dictator as he was in 2003, was a very good friend of the United States and of Britain when he was fighting Iran in the ’80s. But let’s, you know, forget about that for the moment. So, the invasion was absolutely horrible.
And this—you know, it has—I mean, let’s talk about what is—what is important to talk about now: terrorism. There was no terrorism. There were no terrorists in Iraq in those days. Terrorism was sucked in, brought in, by—as a direct consequence of the invasion. And it flourished, first of all, in Iraq, and then it went to Syria, and now it is back in Iraq. So, to say that 2003 had nothing to do with what is happening now is a little bit an—I don’t know—overstatement, understatement. Certainly not reality.
AMY GOODMAN: Ambassador Brahimi, Paul Bremer, the first head of the so-called coalitional—Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, one of the first things he did in that role was to sign the Coalition Provisional Authority Orders 1 and 2, completely dismantling Iraq’s government and military. During your tenure as U.N. special envoy for Iraq, you referred to Bremer as, quote, “the dictator of Iraq.” Writing in The Wall Street Journal over the weekend in the wake of the present violence that’s engulfing Iraq, Bremer said, quote, “It is time for both American political parties to cease their ritualistic incantations of ‘no boots on the ground,’ which is not the same as ‘no combat forces.’ Of course Americans are reluctant to re-engage in Iraq. Yet it is President Obama’s unhappy duty to educate them about the risks to our interests posed by the unfolding drama in Iraq.” Can you elaborate, Ambassador Brahimi, on your comments about Paul Bremer being dictator of Iraq and what that meant for Iraq?
LAKHDAR BRAHIMI: You know, I was just repeating something that he said himself. I think he said—and he has written, I think, in his memoirs—that nobody in the history of Iraq had as much power as he had. For my money, that is equivalent to being a dictator. And he was doing everything he wanted.
And you have mentioned, you know, the dissolution of the army. Every American who knew anything about Iraq, and there were quite a few, many of them in government—former ambassadors, people who know Arabic, who know the country, who know the region—they were all unanimous: Don’t touch the army. There are definitely, you know, 10, 15, 100, 1,000 officers that have, you know, blood on their hands, that are corrupt, that should be taken off the army. But keep the army. This is the backbone of the country, and it is going to cooperate with you. And as a matter of fact, a lot of people, including in the military, were already talking to some of the Iraqi militaries to see how they can come back and reorganize themselves and work with the occupying power. But Mr. Bremer—and he was saying that he was under instructions from the secretary of state for defense, Mr. Rumsfeld—said, “No, no, no. We will dissolve the army.” And they went ahead and did it. I think that—you know, I don’t think there is any, any, any argument that that was a mistake then.
Should—what should the Americans do today? I fully understand the hesitation of President Obama to send foreign troops in, American troops into Iraq again. As a principle, foreign troops meddling in an internal situation like this is not a very good idea. I also hear that there is a possibility that they will be talking to Iran, and I’m sure that they will be talking to other neighbors of Iraq, chief of them—amongst them, Saudi Arabia, to see what needs to be done to help Iraq solve its problems and perhaps stop these terrorist organizations from making more progress. But be careful that this help from outside does not make things worse. I think that it’s—you know, there is a lot of sectarianism in Iraq. I don’t think there is a secret—that’s a secret or anybody ignores that fact or says it doesn’t exist. So, please, if you help face this ISIS, that’s great, but make sure that you don’t make things worse by making—by supporting more sectarianism, not less sectarianism.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Ambassador Brahimi, on the question of sectarianism, there have been several reports that suggest that in the initial days of the Iraq invasion in 2003, there were some neoconservative members of the Bush administration that actively fostered sectarianism between Sunnis, Shias and Kurds as a way of—as a policy of kind of divide and rule. Could you comment on that?
LAKHDAR BRAHIMI: I have told my American friends several times, of course, I am not privy to what was taking place in the Pentagon, where responsibility lied for Iraq. President Bush had given full, total responsibility to the Pentagon over Iraq. What was discussed there and what they did there, I don’t know. But as somebody from the region just looking at what was actually taking place, it was extremely hard not to believe that sectarianism was being promoted and that the people that were being put in charge were—I mean, of course the Kurdish region was given to Kurds 100 percent, and no—the rest of the Iraqis had no part in it. But in the rest of Iraq, the impression one had was that the people that were preferred by the occupying powers were the most sectarian Shia and the most pro-Iranian Shia, so, you know, that Iran—that Iraq is now very, very close to Iran. Again, from the point of view of somebody who looks at things from outside, I have absolutely no knowledge of what went on in the high spheres of power in Washington. The impression we had is that these people were put in charge either out of total ignorance—and that is extremely difficult to accept—or intentionally. But the fact is, you know, that the system that was established was very sectarian.
AMY GOODMAN: Ambassador Lakhdar Brahimi. He resigned his post last month as United Nations-Arab League special envoy for Syria. We’ll be back with him in a moment.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we continue our conversation with Ambassador Lakhdar Brahimi. He resigned as U.N.-Arab League special envoy to Syria last month. Democracy Now!’s Nermeen Shaikh and I interviewed him yesterday. He’s in Paris, France. I asked him what the gravest error of the U.S. was in its 2003 invasion of Iraq.
LAKHDAR BRAHIMI: The biggest mistake was to invade Iraq. Having invaded Iraq, you know, I would be probably very, very unfair, but I am tempted to say that every time there was a choice between something right and something wrong, not very often the right option was taken.
If you want one instance of what was wrong, it’s probably the dissolution of the army, because the army was the backbone of the country, because the army was nonsectarian. You know, the majority of the soldiers were Shia. And I think in the officer corps—it would be very interesting to take a look back—you would find that there were a lot of Shia in it. Saddam was not—you know, I mean, didn’t care about who was Sunni or who was Shia. What he cared for is who was with him and who was not, you know, who would—whom he considers as loyal 1,000 percent and whom he does not. You know, I asked some American friends, couple of times—I don’t know if you remember that deck of cards with Saddam being the ace of spades. Out of those 54 bad guys in Iraq, I used to ask my American friends whether they knew how many Shia were in that deck of cards. One of them said zero. One of them said four or five. Actually, the number of Shia in that deck of cards was 35.
During the war, I mean, Saddam was terribly unfair. Although a lot of Shia were fighting in the ranks of army of their country against Shia Iran, I think he was extremely suspicious of the Shia, because they were Shia. And he has killed a lot of religious leaders, a lot of—so, you know, there was—there was that, but nothing like what existed after that and what exists today.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Ambassador Brahimi, you’ve suggested that sectarianism was excarcerbated following the 2003 invasion of Iraq by the U.S.
LAKHDAR BRAHIMI: Yeah, sure.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: One of the other effects, which you mentioned earlier, was the spread of terrorism, and in particular, of suicide attacks in Iraq, which prior to 2003 were unprecedented. In other words, neither Iraq nor Afghanistan nor Pakistan nor Syria had ever witnessed suicide attacks before 9/11 occurred and, subsequent to that, the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. So could you talk about some of the implications of that, what the effects of that have been, and how you think that phenomenon, which is now so widespread, should be dealt with?
LAKHDAR BRAHIMI: It did not exist in Iraq. And, you know, this al-Qaeda did not exist at all. It had no dormant cell in Iraq. It was brought in after the invasion as a way of people coming to fight a crusader, a power, invading a sister Muslim country. That is when al-Qaeda came in and started to recruit Iraqis and to bring in non-Iraqis. The ancestor of ISIS was created as a direct consequence of the invasion of Iraq, nothing else. And, you know, it developed and so on, and you remember 2005, 2006, 2007 were absolutely horrible years in Iraq, when civil war was really taking place, with the Americans at the receiving end themselves. And, of course, they destroyed Fallujah completely; the Americans destroyed the city of Fallujah completely.
Car bombs and so on did exist before, but it did no exist in Iraq, and al-Qaeda had absolutely no presence in Iraq before the invasion. It really became a reality as a direct consequence of the invasion in 2003 and developed from there. And what you see today there is the son or the grandson of what happened in—I mean, you know, I’m sure some of your viewers may remember the name of Zarqawi, a Jordanian, very, very cruel man who was one of the leaders of the al-Qaeda in Iraq in those years, 2005, 2006. So, this is it. Al-Qaeda and what—the terrorist organizations that exist today in—as far as Iraq is concerned, and Syria, as a matter of fact, their origin is definitely post-2003.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: I want to turn to comments made by the former U.S. ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford. He resigned from his position in May. He was speaking to Christiane Amanpour on CNN earlier this month.
ROBERT FORD: I was no longer in a position where I felt I could defend the American policy. We have been unable to address either the root causes of the conflict, in terms of the fighting on the ground and the balance on the ground, and we have a growing extremism threat. And there really is nothing we can point to that’s been very successful in our policy, except the removal of about 93 percent of some of Assad’s chemical materials. But now he’s using chlorine gas against his opponents, in contravention of the Syrian government’s agreement in 2013 to abide by the Chemical Weapons Convention. The regime simply has no credibility, and our policy is not addressing the Syrian crisis as it needs to.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: That was Robert Ford, the former U.S. ambassador to Syria. Ambassador Brahimi, could you comment on what he said and also what you see the flaws with U.S. policy vis-à-vis Syria being today?
LAKHDAR BRAHIMI: I was very, very surprised when I heard him say that he left because he couldn’t support the American policy anymore. Very, very surprised that—you know, of course, I’m not familiar with what was going on inside the government and what discussions he had with the secretary of state and others before he left, but the impression I had was that he left because he reached retirement age and he was tired of dealing with a very, very difficult problem in Syria. That was understandable. This is—this is something, you know, very surprising to me, what he said about him not capable of supporting the U.S. policy anymore. Again, the view in the region was that he was making the policy, or at least he was taking a very, very important part in making that policy.
You know, what was wrong with American policy, I think every single party that dealt with Syria over the last three years have made mistakes. The United States, like everybody else, misjudged the meaning and the—you know, what was happening and, you know, where things were going. You know, mistakes were made in Tunisia, when everybody thought that, you know, President Ben Ali was so strong, so well organized, that these demonstrations are going to last two days, three days, three or two weeks, and then they will be over and the men will be there. He left after less than a month. Mubarak in Egypt—you know, Egypt is a stable country, a very well-organized country. Their police was tremendously strong and well equipped. They will manage to—you know, to ride this storm. And to be fair, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, they took quite a while. They were telling those young people, I mean, “Go home. You know, you are going to be killed for nothing. The regime is not going to fall.” This is—this was—so, everybody made a mistake there. So when the—you know, and Libya, Libya, the country, you know, everybody thought that Libya would fall in a matter of days. It took several months and several billion dollars spent by the Americans, the French, the British and others in bombarding and destroying the country. And, by the way, look at the results: They are not great.
When the turn of Syria came, I think, understandably, everybody said, “Ah, OK, you know, this is now the trend. People—I mean, this regime resist one month, three weeks, six months. So this will be the case in Syria.” So I think that the Americans, like everybody else, thought that the regime was going to fall, and everybody started talking about the day after. And people were afraid that they would not be ready for the day after, that the regime will fall, and we will not be ready how to help the country rebuild and so on and so forth. It has taken maybe almost three years, three, four years, before people started to realize that this was different. And by the way, the Russians were the first who said this—Syria is not going to follow suit to what happened in Tunisia and Egypt; the regime is not going to fall. And nobody listened to them. I think if we had, perhaps it would have been better for all of us.
AMY GOODMAN: Why did you quit as former U.N. and Arab League envoy for Syria?
LAKHDAR BRAHIMI: You know, I wanted to quit one year before I did, because in these kind of jobs, you come and try a few ideas and then move on. This is not a 9:00 to 5:00 job that you do for years and years. That is one reason.
The second reason is that, you know, we organized that conference in Montreux, Switzerland, and we moved from there to what we thought was going to be negotiations between the opposition and the government. And that was a failure, mainly because of the government. And then the government announced that they were organizing presidential elections, meaning that they were going a totally different way from what we were discussing in Geneva. So I think it was the normal thing for me to do.
I have tried this working with the Russians and the Americans. Together, the three of us have organized the Geneva II Conference. I led those discussions, two rounds of discussions in Geneva. That has taken us nowhere. I think it is time to tell the Syrian people we are not delivering, and we—I apologize to them for that, but also to tell everybody else, “Please be careful. This is—this is a very, very bad, very complicated, very dangerous situation, and you have got to pay more attention to it.” I hope that, you know, they will pay a little bit more attention and that they will help the secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, who is really devoting a great deal of attention to Syria. I hope that he will be helped to do a better job than I have been able to do until the end of May.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Ambassador Brahimi, you’ve also suggested, in an interview you gave to the German news magazine Der Spiegel earlier this month, that the situation in Syria is so much worse than it was in Afghanistan in 1999 when you resigned your U.N. position there. Could you explain why you think that’s the case?
LAKHDAR BRAHIMI: You know, in Afghanistan, there was a, yeah, civil war, but the factions in Afghanistan were not over-armed the way the parties that are involved in Syria are. There was—you know, nobody had the aviation that the Syrian government has or the tanks and the artillery that they have. It was, you know, this horrible war, low-intensity civil war. And, you know, the Afghans were, in their way, much better organized and also much more open in their discussions with us. For example, we never had, in all those wars of civil war—you know, after the Russians left, anyway, that’s the part I know—we never had any problem going for the vaccination in spring. All the factions knew that teams from the United Nations were going to go all over the country and vaccinate kids. And that happened. It hasn’t been that easy in Syria.
You know, the Russians had destroyed quite a little bit of the country, and the Afghans, very early on, before the Taliban, destroyed Kabul when the Russians left. But after that, there wasn’t that kind of destruction that you see in Syria now. Homs—friends who went to Homs recently told me that it looks like the pictures we see of Berlin in 1945. So the level of destruction is absolutely horrible. You know, when I arrived on the scene in ’97, with the years of Russians and the—of the internal civil war between the factions, there was something like five million refugees from Afghanistan. In three years only, in Syria, we have two million and a half refugees, six or seven million internally displaced. And by next year, if things continue the way they are, we are going to have four million refugees—population being about the same, 23 million in Syria, maybe 25 or 26 [million] in Afghanistan. So, the level of violence and destruction is much higher in Syria than it was in Afghanistan.
AMY GOODMAN: Lakhdar Brahimi, who resigned his post last month as United Nations-Arab League special envoy for Syria. We’ll be back with him in a minute.