In general, we in the West don't know very much about history. Our own, or anyone else's. We have a few touchstones which the right and left both flee to like security blankets when there's a new crisis, and that's about it. For instance, the right says that we can't do anything that resembles appeasement because Munich. The left says that we shouldn't do nation-building interventions because Iraq and Afghanistan. Everybody agrees that we can't get stuck in a quagmire fighting intractable guerrilla forces, because Vietnam. The Middle Easterners have been fighting each other forever!! That's pretty much as far as history goes.
History isn't just a source of lessons learned, though. We're stuck in it. We can't get out of it. That's unavoidable. But the more we refuse to learn about it, the more likely we are to suffer failure in our current projects. Because we don't understand where those projects came from in the first place. Which is why I thought it would be helpful to very briefly summarize a history of Western interventions in Syria and Iraq. Because this time, people seem to think, the bombing/training mission will be different. Somehow.
Everything here comes back to the problem of failed states. In a sense, the history of the modern Middle East is actually a history of our failed attempts to fix the original state failures. At the end of World War I, Russia, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire all failed. They collapsed. That led to the rise of the Soviet Union, the Balkanization of the (original) Balkans, and the redrawing of the Middle East more or less into the countries you see today. (With some differences, for instance, Israel wasn't created until after World War II.) Ever since, Western policy has been to support strong and effective states in Syria and Iraq that are friendly to our strategic and economic interests. Again, somehow.
This is the long-term timeline. The next one will deal more specifically with events since 2003. I'm giving you the long view of history to show you just how naive, foolish, and shortsighted our current policies are:
1915 -- In the McMahon-Hussein agreement, Britain promises the lord of Mecca that in exchange for a revolt against the Ottoman Empire, they will recognize an independent Arab nation.
1916 -- Britain, France, and Russia negotiate the secret Sykes-Picot treaty, which transforms Ottoman territory into European colonies. France gets Syria, Lebanon, and northern Iraq. Britain gets southern Iraq and Jordan.
1918 -- The lord of Mecca's youngest son, Faisal, forms the new Arab government in Damascus, believing the Allies will recognize him because he led the promised revolt.
1919 -- At the Versailles Conference, with Faisal in attendance, the European governments agree not to recognize independent postcolonial states in the Middle East (or anywhere else). Instead they divide up the region into "Mandates," colonies which are parcelled out to the victorious Allies. "Iraq" is created and given to Britain. "Syria" is created and given to France. These are multiethnic mandates. Substantial Kurdish minority regions end up in Syria and Iraq as well as Iran and Turkey. There is also a large Shi'ite population in Iraq.
1920 -- Faisal declares Syrian independence, with himself as leader. The French invade and destroy Faisal's army at the Battle of Maysalun. France then divides Syria into six separate states. In exchange for standing down his opposition, the British agree to crown Faisal as King of their own colony, Iraq, and so Faisal becomes the first king of Iraq.
The Kurds and Shi'ites reject Faisal, a Sunni. The British prop up Faisal by passing legislation to help Sunni tribal leaders (sheikhs) consolidate their holdings.
1922 -- All of the French-Syrian states are actually hostile to France. Trying to cool down the conflict, France merges three of them, including Damascus, into the "Syrian Federation."
1925 -- One of the Federation states secedes, leading to the Great Syrian Revolt. France decides to split the other two apart into separate states again, too.
1930 -- France reforms the three states as the Republic of Syria, with a new flag and constitution.
1932 -- British mandate in Iraq officially ends. Unlike the ongoing tumult in Syria, when Faisal dies in 1933 he is peacefully succeeded by his son.
1933 -- France lays out a new plan for gradual Syrian independence. Nationalists lead a general strike and riot against the plan, whose terms are said to heavily favour French interests. France abandons the plan.
1935 -- The Mandates guaranteed under the Treaty of Versailles are supposed to expire this year, but the colonies are deemed unready for full independence.
1936 -- France negotiates a new plan with Syrian nationalists to grant Syrian independence over 25 years. However, the French parliament refuses to ratify the agreement, so it lapses.
1940 -- France is invaded and surrenders, leaving Syria as a colony of the pro-Nazi Vichy regime.
1941 -- The pro-British King Ghazi of Iraq dies in a car accident in 1939 and is replaced by his four-year-old son. In 1941, Nazi Germany sponsors a military takeover, the Golden Square Coup. Britain invades to retake Iraq.
The same year, Free French forces liberate Syria, which proclaims itself an independent country.
1945 -- Shortly after war in Europe ends, France bombs Damascus and tries to arrest its government leaders in order to re-establish control over its colony. The attempt does not succeed, and France withdraws the following year.
In Iraq, Kurdish forces lead an unsuccessful revolt. When it fails the leaders seek asylum in the Soviet Union.
1946 -- Syria proclaims independence.
1948 -- Israel is created. Syria and Iraq reject the new borders and join the Arab-Israeli War to press its territorial claims, with mixed results.
1949 -- Syria blocks a U.S.-backed pipeline project through the Middle East. The CIA sponsors a military coup which overthrows the Syrian national government.
1954 -- A socialist-Arab nationalist coalition that includes the Ba'ath Party overthrows the military dictatorship. The new government allies itself with the Soviet Union in exchange for military aid.
1956 -- The Iraq monarchy joins a new British-led alliance, the Baghdad Pact, which is intended to counter the growing power of Egypt and Syria.
1958 -- Egypt and Syrian nationalists, worried about increasing Soviet influence, agree to merge their countries to create an Arab Federation. Britain and Jordan try to counter this through their alliance network, but Iraq is left out because it opposes Britain's plans to recognize an independent Kuwait.
In Iraq, a military coup, inspired by Egypt, overthrows the originally pro-British monarchy and establishes a new republic and dictatorship. The new government allows the Kurdish rebels to return from exile in exchange for their support fighting former regime loyalists. By the early 1960s, however, the Kurds have become armed opponents of the regime instead.
1961 -- Elements of the Syrian military reject the Federation plan. They overthrow the government in a coup and bring Syria back out of the union.
Britain recognizes an independent Kuwait. Iraq refuses to accept Kuwaiti sovereignty.
1963 -- The secular-socialist Baath Party overthrows the Iraqi monarchy in the Ramadan Revolution, installing a new republican dictatorship. Inspired by the success of the Iraqi wing, the Syrian wing of the same party also undertakes a coup.
The two Baath dictatorships begin negotiations to merge Iraq and Syria. However, dissenting elements of the Iraqi military overthrow the Baathists in another coup and withdraw from the talks.
1966 -- Incensed by the failure of the Baathist old guard to promote Arab unity and (as they see it) social justice, a radicalized segment of the party takes over Syria and declares a new regime and constitution.
1967 - Israel initiates the Six-Day War with a pre-emptive strike against Egypt. It seizes the Golan Heights from Syria, Egypt's ally, while the new Baathists are still trying to consolidate power.
1968 -- Politically weakened by the aftermath of the Six-Day War, the Iraqi dictatorship is overthrown and the Baathists resume power.
1970 -- Syria unsuccessfully tries to intervene in a civil war in Jordan, a long-time U.S. ally. In response, Jordan bombs Syrian positions. Incensed by the civilian government's agreement to withdraw from Jordan, the military takes over in another coup.
1973 -- The new Syrian regime tries to take back the Golan Heights from Israel in the Yom Kippur War, but fails.
1976 -- Syria intervenes in the Lebanese Civil War on behalf of the Maronite Christians, in opposition to Israel. Syrian forces remain in Lebanon as a controversial occupying force until 2005. The most important long-term outcome of the Lebanese conflict is the emergence of Hezbollah.
1979 -- The Iraqi government renews diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union, the U.S. and Iran, and seems to be on the road to
economic prosperity. In 1979, the Baath Party selects Saddam Hussein, the mastermind of the economic reforms, as its new leader.
1980-1988 -- Iraq invades Iran in the wake of the Iranian Revolution. Because they were allies of the former Iranian regime, the Americans ultimately supply Iraq political and military aid for the war effort. The aid includes technology transfers that fuel Iraq's biological and chemical weapons research programs. Saddam uses the war as an excuse to begin a campaign of genocide against the Kurds, which includes the use of chemical weapons against Kurdish civilians.
1985 -- Despite being an unofficial ally of Saddam's Iraq, American intelligence also sells weapons to Iran to raise funds to fund far-right terrorist groups in Nicaragua. (They need the money because Congress's budget explicitly prohibits use of taxpayer's funds for this purpose.)
1990 -- With the Iran-Iraq war over, Saddam turns to the Kuwait issue. The American ambassador tells Saddam that the ongoing dispute over Kuwaiti sovereignty is a matter for those two countries to resolve between them. Although almost certainly intended as a statement of American neutrality in ongoing border talks, Saddam takes this as an indication that the U.S. will permit an Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, which he promptly orders.
1991 -- The U.S. leads a UN-sanctioned alliance to restore Kuwaiti sovereignty. Despite the Baathist ties between their countries, Syria supports the Allied intervention. Expecting that the Americans may march all the way to Baghdad, Shi'ite and Kurdish opposition groups begin rebellions against Saddam. The Allies establish "no-fly zones" to prevent Iraqi air strikes against these opposition groups, and impose punitive sanctions, but otherwise provide no real assistance.
2000 -- In Syria, Longtime president Hafiz Al-Assad dies, and his son, Bashar Al-Assad, takes over. This is the current president of Syria. He ran unopposed in an "election," supposedly taking 97% of the vote.
2001 -- In Syria, Al-Assad takes advantage of the war on terror to pursue new and friendlier relations with the West. For instance, it agrees to use its jails and torture squads in America's extraordinary rendition program. Maher Arar, for instance, is arrested by the Americans then held and tortured by the Syrians.
2003 -- Citing its totalitarianism and non-existent nuclear weapons program, the U.S. and the U.K. invade Iraq and overthrow Saddam Hussein. The Bush administration expects a rapid and peaceful transition to a successor government. Instead, it gets quickly bogged down in a civil war.
Syria refuses to back America's invasion of Iraq. In exchange, its relations with the West decline again. Israel bombs Damascus in 2003, saying it is targeting terrorists. The U.S. declares Syria to be pro-terrorist and pro-weapons of mass destruction and imposes new sanctions.
2008 -- By 2008, American special forces are routinely invading Syria to attack targets they believe are connected with Iraqi insurgents. In that year, special forces attack "foreign fighters" at Abu Kamal.
2011 -- The U.S. withdraws from Iraq. The civil war in Iraq continues, however, flamed by tensions between Sunni rebels and the Shi'a government.
Syrian opposition groups, as part of the Arab Spring, begin widespread protests against Bashar Al-Assad. Al-Assad responds with military force. The ongoing Syrian Civil War begins. This conflict is not two-sided. However, in general, the regime is Alawite (a Muslim sect) and receives support from Shi'a Muslims, including Hezbollah and Iran. The opposition is mostly Sunni, including al-Nusra (aka Al-Qaeda) and Islamic State (ISIL), which splintered from Al Qaeda because Al Qaeda was not radical enough for them.
2014 -- The regimes in Damascus and Baghdad are both near failure. The civil wars essentially merge as one of the leading insurgent groups from the American occupation period, Islamic State, expands into Syria and proclaims itself to be an independent caliphate. No nations recognize Islamic State's declaration of independence.
Western nations, including Canada, step up air strikes and military training programs in the civil war zone. Officially, Western policy is to support both the comprehensive defeat of Islamic State and the overthrow of Bashar Al-Assad.
Russia begins air strikes against Islamic State. Its policy is to strengthen the Al-Assad regime and, in the process, to defeat Islamic State. Hezbollah sends ground troops in support of these two objectives. Iran sends ground troops and makes air strikes for the same stated reasons.
2015 -- Western media anecdotally reports that ISIS is being gradually driven back by various forces with Western and Russian support. The Baghdad and Damascus regimes do not, however, restore control over the civil war zones. Instead Western support flows to a variety of non-state actors, like Kurdish militias and so-called moderate rebel groups in Syria.
2016 -- ???