syria protest democracy 2011

Syria Is Not Iraq Revisited

Afghanistan (2001-ongoing) and Iraq (2003-2011) should remind us of the unpredictability of mission creep.

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syria protest democracy 2011

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With more than 60,000 estimated deaths, the issue of military intervention to stop the bloodshed in Syria is becoming more and more topical. Some days ago on the pages of The Atlantic, Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center, wrote a very thoughtful piece, Syria is Not Iraq, where he argued in favor of intervention.

Hamid is extremely critical of the way the United States is responding -or not responding- to the Syrian crisis:

In due time, the Obama administration’s inability or unwillingness to act may be remembered as one of the great strategic and moral blunders of recent decades. Hoping to atone for our sins in Iraq, we have overlearned the lessons of the last war.

Hamid’s article raises two questions. First, is it fair to define the Obama administration’s policy toward Syria “one of the great strategic and moral blunders of recent decades”? Second, is the 2003 war in Iraq the only precedent we should look at to find enduring lessons that could have influenced the current US policy in Syria?

With regard to the first question, the United States did make mistakes along the way. For example, I agree with Hamid that discarding the option of military intervention “in such a flagrant manner” could have been a mistake. In fact, publicly taking the military option off the table may have decreased the pressure the international community could exert on the Syrian regime to restrain its response to the uprising.

The United States could have also taken different decisions. It took US President Obama five months to state that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had lost legitimacy. It took Obama an additional month and a death toll of around 20,000 people to finally say that “for the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside.” That was a long wait, above all considering the level of violence reached in the Syrian conflict and the fact that in Libya the US president called on Colonel Qaddafi to leave after only two weeks and a much lower death toll.

Mistakes and questionable decisions notwithstanding, there is not sufficient evidence to support the statement that US policy has been one of the great strategic and moral blunders of recent decades. To make such a statement one should have the certainty that a military intervention would resolve the conflict once and for all. I simply do not think that at this time we have the luxury to believe that a foreign military intervention would inevitably bring back peace and stability in Syria. Reasons to be worried about the opposite outcome are indeed justified.

President Obama made such concerns public in a recent interview on The New Republic:

In a situation like Syria, I have to ask, can we make a difference in that situation? Would a military intervention have an impact? How would it affect our ability to support troops who are still in Afghanistan? What would be the aftermath of our involvement on the ground? Could it trigger even worse violence or the use of chemical weapons? What offers the best prospect of a stable post-Assad regime? And how do I weigh tens of thousands who’ve been killed in Syria versus the tens of thousands who are currently being killed in the Congo? Those are not simple questions. And you process them as best you can.

Unfortunately, nobody is in the position to know exactly what would have happened had the United States intervened militarily in Syria. One can only speculate on it. However, I think Hamid’s criticism is not completely fair mostly because it does not consider past US experiences in the Middle East, other than Iraq in 2003, that may have influenced the Obama administration’s decision to take a prudent stance toward getting involved militarily in Syria.

Afghanistan (2001-ongoing) and Iraq (2003-2011) should remind us of the unpredictability of mission creep. Two military operations that started with a relatively narrow objective then progressively turned into prolonged and costly nation-building efforts whose outcomes one can arguably define as successes.

Hamid would probably rebut that 2011 Libya was a clear example of the Obama administration’s ability to avoid mission creep and the risk of getting bogged down into yet another nation-building effort in the Middle East. Today, however, Libya is a state with a very weak central government. Several armed militia are effectively in power in some areas of the country. Last September in the Libyan city of Benghazi Christopher Stevens was the first US ambassador to be killed after more than 30 years. Arms provided to the anti-Qaddafi opposition reportedly ended up in the hands of extremists. The same extremists that have crossed Libyan porous borders to export violence into neighboring countries such as Algeria and Mali.

What if, then, the United States intervened militarily in Syria and after the end of the military operations, following the script of the Libya intervention, did not take on the burden of nation-building? Who would be ready for a Libya-redux in Syria with similar levels of instability and lawlessness? What the potentially explosive implications for highly-sensitive countries such as Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, Iraq and Turkey? All that considered, I believe that a limited US military intervention in Syria with no significant follow-up would be not only unwise but also extremely dangerous.

Finally, the Syrian crisis has clearly taken the form of a civil war that primarily pits a Sunni majority against an Alawite minority, with other minor groups picking side or standing idle. Lebanon in the early 80s was a dramatic example for the United States of the perils of getting involved in civil wars fought mostly along sectarian lines. At that time, in fact, US troops and personnel became targets of terrorist attacks that resulted in more than 300 American casualties on Lebanese soil.

Therefore, the US lack of enthusiasm to intervene militarily in Syria may go well-beyond the unfortunate experience of Iraq to include hard lessons from Afghanistan, Libya and Lebanon.

Hamid argues that the Obama administration is making a huge mistake by not getting involved militarily in Syria. I personally hold some doubts that the current Syrian mess could be resolved by military means. Instead, more resources and more energies should be invested in finding a difficult, but not yet impossible, political solution to crisis.

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Photo Credit: Syriana2011

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