Sunnis, who’d enjoyed privileges under Saddam, were particularly negative about Iraq. For 69 percent of them, corruption has gotten worse, compared with 39 percent of Shiites, whom Saddam’s regime had repressed, though they’re a majority in the country. In a clear reference to Iran, a Shiite-ruled theocracy, 39 percent of Sunnis said there’d been worse foreign intervention since U.S. troops had left. Only 27 percent of Shiites felt that way.
Iraq’s leaders openly express alarm at what’s going on in nearby Syria. That worry was particularly strong earlier this month, after gunmen deep inside Iraq killed at least 50 Syrian civilians and soldiers who’d fled their country during a rebel offensive and were being escorted by Iraqi troops to another border crossing for repatriation. Days later, the Islamic State of Iraq, the al Qaida in Iraq umbrella group, claimed the attack, which also had killed Iraqi troops, and Iraqi officials conceded that after a dozen years of training alongside American troops and billions of dollars worth of U.S. equipment, they’d been unable to defend themselves. The attack was the most sophisticated they’d seen in years, Iraqi officials said.
“We need equipment. We need electronic surveillance. We need an air force,” Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari told McClatchy earlier this month. “We need a border control system. Definitely. We don’t have it. We have only the concrete blocks that the Americans left for us, lined up along the borders.”
No one knows how long the conflict in Syria will go on. President Barack Obama first called for Assad to step down 19 months ago. U.S. officials no longer say Assad’s days are numbered, and the United Nations published a report this past week that says neither side may claim the military upper hand, though rebel advances seem to outnumber those of the Syrian military.
The United States agreed earlier this month to provide the anti-Assad opposition coalition with $60 million to help it get organized, and the European Union agreed to ease its arms embargo to allow some direct aid to the rebels, including armored personnel carriers.
But with Russia and China firmly on Assad’s side and blocking a series of anti-Assad U.N. resolutions, there’s no legal basis for broader international intervention – and no consensus that such intervention would end the bloodshed.
Perhaps most surprising is how much the tone of the effort in Syria has changed. Though it once was presented as an attempt to bring democracy to the country, the Islamist militant groups that dominate the rebel fighting oppose the very idea. Unable to win on their own, democracy proponents have aligned with those groups, with the head of the U.S.-supported Syrian Opposition Coalition, Mouaz al Khatib, openly denouncing the State Department’s designation of the Nusra Front as an al Qaida-linked terrorist group.
Earlier this month, as anti-Assad fighters moved through Raqqa province – first capturing a strategic dam, then the provincial capital and then the government building itself – they distributed fliers calling democracy un-Islamic.
“Beware of democracy,” they read.
That’s a lesson that in a different way might resonate in Egypt and Libya, where free elections have yet to mean stability.