Washington, D.C. -- Nine years ago this week, our Fox News team accompanied U.S. Marines as they swept into Baghdad and then north up the Tigris River to seize Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit. It took less than three weeks to drive the tyrant from power in Operation Iraqi Freedom, and it appeared then that the force of American arms could ensure a new era of tranquility in a part of the world where brutality and anti-American despots had ruled for too long. But it was not so.
The December 13, 2003, capture of the deposed dictator, dragged filthy and bedraggled from a "spider hole" within sight of his palace in Tikrit, failed to quell a rising insurgency. During the following spring and through the autumn of 2004, the U.S. Marines and soldiers we lived with in Anbar province were in daily gun battles with well-armed Sunni insurgents waging jihad against the "invaders." To the east and in Baghdad, Shiite militias launched a campaign of terror against their Sunni countrymen and coalition troops. At home, critics of the war and the Bush administration prognosticated that the fights for Fallujah and Ramadi were prelude to all-out civil war. But that didn't happen either.
In the spring of 2005, we were embedded with the Marines when they launched Operation Matador in Al Qa'im, where the Euphrates River enters Iraq from Syria. Their mission: stanch the flow of weapons, munitions and suicidal Islamist militants flooding into Anbar province from Syria. Interdicting the Damascus-supported ratlines turned out to be a very good idea. Five months later, we documented the first free national legislative election in Iraqi history -- and a better than 70 percent turnout.
U.S. military operations along Iraq's border with Syria didn't end the insurgency, but they made the subsequent "awakening" in Anbar -- and then the rest of the country -- possible. By the time we were covering the "surge" five years ago, the bloody operation in Al Qa'im was all but forgotten by those who once predicted catastrophe in Iraq. The "reporters" who didn't make it to Al Qa'im in 2005 ought to go there now. This desert town on the banks of the Euphrates is once again the scene of a flood from Syria. But now it's a torrent of refugees fleeing the sanguinary carnage wrought by Bashar Assad.
None of us -- including the U.S. Marines we accompanied to Baghdad and beyond nine years ago this week -- expected the outcome we now see in the Middle East. In the aftermath of the attack on 9-11-01, the end of the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan was predictable. So, too, was the demise of Saddam Hussein once the battle in Iraq was joined. But no one in government or elsewhere spoke or wrote about these military operations precipitating a nearly spontaneous cascade of collapsing authoritarian regimes throughout the region. Yet that's what has happened.
When unarmed civilians protesting oppressive government policies, rampant unemployment and escalating food prices drove Zine El Abidine Ben Ali from power in Tunisia on January 14 of last year, devotees of Barack Obama attributed the event to our president's Nobel Prize-winning oratorical skills. They called it the "transition in Tunis" and described it all as the beginning of an "Arab Spring." It was repeated yet again in February as crowds in Cairo forced Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak from power. The term was still in vogue in October when Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi fell to an armed rebellion and NATO airstrikes. Now it's happening in Syria, but this time the crowds are armed and no one speaks of an "Arab Spring" anymore.
This week's "cease fire," brokered by former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, hasn't stopped Syrian refugees from trekking through the Syrian Desert and across the border into Al Qa'im. Deterred by harsh conditions, lack of fuel and inadequate food and water and banned by the Iraqi government of Nouri al-Maliki from going any farther, they have become unwelcome squatters in the border town that once served as a refuge for terrorists.
The brutal irony in all this is that many of those who once passed through Al Qa'im to threaten the government in Baghdad are now among the armed rebels menacing the regime in Damascus. For six years, Bashar Assad was deaf to U.S. pleas to cut the terror ratlines from Syria into Iraq. Instead, he did the opposite -- facilitating the movement of thousands of Islamist fighters into Anbar province to kill and maim. Now those same Islamists have turned on him, and he is learning one of the harsh realities of war: What goes around comes around.
Oliver North is a nationally syndicated columnist, the host of War Stories on the Fox News Channel, the author of the American Heroes book series and the co-founder of Freedom Alliance, an organization that provides college scholarships to the children of U.S. military personnel killed or permanently disabled in the line of duty.