No, Syria Isn’t Iraq. That’s All The More Reason To Oppose It.
One of the talking points of the pro-Syrian interventionist camp is, people are worried about this being Iraq in terms of intelligence on WMD and the scope of the commitment. The Obama administration has been very clear in saying Syria will not be Iraq in either of those ways.
President Barack Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry and British Prime Minister David Cameron all seem intent on proving that any strike against Syria would be different from the 2003 campaign George W. Bush against Saddam Hussein.
In a speech accusing Bashar al-Assad’s regime of using chemical weapons, Kerry said Friday: “Our intelligence community has carefully reviewed and re-reviewed information regarding this attack. And I will tell you it has done so more than mindful of the Iraq experience. We will not repeat that moment.”
Obama said, “In no event are we considering any kind of military action that would involve boots on the ground, that would involve a long-term campaign, but we are looking at the possibility of a limited, narrow act.”
For me the “Syria is not Iraq” argument isn’t reassuring, it’s exactly why we shouldn’t do it.
The WMD intelligence issue was never part of why I supported the Iraq invasion in 2003 (and it wasn’t the only, or even the most important part of the Bush case for the war). I supported the policy because in the aftermath of 9/11 the United States needed to take someone out in the Middle East and change the rules of the game in the region.
September 11th showed that militant Islamists were offering an ideological choice to Muslims who had lived under repressive regimes often backed or allied with the United States. The hardcore jihadis are unalterably opposed to the freedoms and values of the west but in many cases the populations of Muslim dominated countries could be, if not courted as supporters, at least neutralized and made less hostile to the United States. By invading/liberating Iraq and hopefully establishing a moderate government there, the US would create an example for other Muslim countries and demonstrate to Muslims around the world that the US wasn’t simply supporting tyrannical regimes like Mubark’s Egypt.
The Cold War model of backing corrupt authoritarians in order to fight a bigger evil had come to an end and the US needed to offer an alternative to the fundamentalists promise of restoring the ancient caliphate. Was it a perfect strategy? Obviously not but it was pretty much the only one on offer. As a bad plan will always defeat no plan, we went with it. No matter what it looks like at the moment, the results are far from in. It was always going to be a project that once set in motion would take decades to measure.
Against that strategic background, WMD or not, a massive invasion of Iraq and the attendant costs was a reasonable effort. Naturally it could have and should have been managed much better after the initial military victory but as in any endeavor the enemy gets a vote.
That maxim, that the enemy gest a vote, is what I keep coming back to when evaluating the proposed Syrian adventure.
There doesn’t seem to be any rationale or strategic aim other than expressing displeasure with Assad’s use of chemical weapons. The underlying assumption seems to be we can measure our military response with such precision that it will accomplish the goals of punishing Assad (while not hurting his ability to fight off the jihadi led rebellion) and to serve as sufficient warning to other tyrants not to use chemical weapons on either their own people or their foreign enemies.
Even assuming such a calibration is possible (and I don’t) it ignores that once the dogs of war have been let loose, the initiator (in this case, the US) doesn’t get to then announce that it is over.
There are three main parties with equities in Syria…the Assad regime, its Iranian patrons (along with their terrorist puppets in Hezbollah) and the Russians (who aside from being a prime arms supplier and longtime ally have a very large interest in maintaining their naval base in Tartus. Keep in mind, access to warm water ports has been a strategic obsession for Russians dating back long before Putin or even the Soviet Union).
To think that any or all of these parties will simply sit back and let an American attack go unanswered is folly.
We’ve already gotten a glimpse of the Iran’s possible response.
The Russians continue to move warships into the eastern Mediterranean. On a less overtly belligerent note, they control a major portion of our supply line into Afghanistan and ship a lot of oil into Europe (Hey, isn’t winter home heating season coming? Why, yes. Yes it is).
As for the Syrians they could respond exactly in the way Obama says he doesn’t want them to…with more chemical weapons attacks.
Then what does the US do?
In short, the enemy gets a vote.
Even if all goes as Obama hopes and there’s no major fallout, what exactly will we have accomplished?
The idea that other despots or non-state actors like al-Qaeda, will be deterred is silly. The lesson they will learn is that if you use chemical weapons Obama will attack you in a way designed not to have all that much impact on you.
Despite what Kerry claims, not striking Assad will not guarantee that chemical weapons will be used again. Was there a rush by rogue regimes to uses these weapons in the two-decades between Saddam Hussein’s use of them in early 80s during the Iran-Iraq war and his eventual overthrow in 2003? No, there wasn’t. The lack of a response by the “world community” meant nothing.
And if the attacks to grow in scope and duration as is now being hinted at, what does that do to the notion that they aren’t designed to turn the tide of the war in Syria? Obama is then lying to America about the scope of the war he is looking to begin. Make no mistake, if you start using bombers to penetrate Syrian airspace (though the bombers could launch weapons from the relative safety of allied airspace, though that would limit their range and effectiveness) and not just missiles launched from ships at sea, you will run the very serious chance of losing an aircraft and its crew. And if you lose them over Syria you need to send in a Combat Search and Rescue team and if one of those birds goes down because unlike bombers they are susceptible to all the shoulder fired anti-aircraft missiles floating around the Syrian battlefield, then what?
What if the attacks are so punitive that the Assad regime is weakened to the point that the rebels gain ground or even win? What is Obama’s plan to ensure the supposedly “moderate’ rebels come out on top? We had hundreds of thousands of troops in Iraq and Afghanistan for years and we couldn’t ensure outcomes that reflected our political goals. How are we going to do this from afar?
The idea that Assad, now branded a war criminal, is going to come to the negotiating table is ludicrous. He has long been in what he knows is a fight to victory or death. Hoping that when he dies the person who follows him in the leadership of the government forces will then come to the table is…optimistic in the extreme.
So no, Syria isn’t Iraq. It’s worse from a strategic perspective. Obama isn’t going in with any clear commitment to a goal and has not done the necessary work to build support within the country to see it through, quite the opposite in fact. The bottom line is he is prepping the country for an engagement that under in the best case has almost no upside but the very real potential to spiral out of control all for goals that are nebulous and contradictory.
People may fear the specter of Iraq but at least we went there with a purpose and committed the resources to meet that purpose. If you don’t like how it turned out (and I don’t think anyone does to date) remember it’s because the enemy gets a vote.