‘Syria is Not Iraq’ – Right, It’s Worse

John Glaser, February 05, 2013

Shadi Hamid, of the Brookings Institution, thinks “we have overlearned the lessons” of Iraq and unfairly let it inform decisions about whether to intervene militarily in Syria:

The memory of the Iraq War obviously looms large. The war, itself, was one of the greatest strategic blunders in the recent history of American foreign policy. But its legacy is proving just as damaging, leading to a series of mistakes that we are likely to regret in due time. There would have been much more willingness to intervene in Syria if we hadn’t intervened in Iraq.

…As [Steven] Cook pointed out in another piece, fundamental questions of morality and philosophy are what, in part, separate proponents and opponents of intervention. “Is it a morally superior position,” Cook asks, “to sit by as people are being killed rather than take action that will kill people, but nevertheless may end up saving lives as well?” The question here, then, isn’t whether it will work, but will it be worth it?

No, the question is still whether it will work. At least that’s one question. As for Cook, his query is formulated all wrong. While it’s no fun to sit by while other people are being killed, Americans are primarily responsible for their own actions, not the actions of others. Furthermore, Cook’s moral plea rests completely on that final phrase: “may end up saving lives as well.” That’s not a very sturdy precept on which to wage war, and it presumes the US government actually cares about people being slaughtered rather than about furthering its own interests in the Middle East.

The more relevant moral and philosophical question that Hamid and Cook ought to be asking is, given the US government’s history of supporting outright slaughter in the hundreds of thousands by the worst kind of dictatorships, how can it be the proper instrument to remedy the situation in Syria?

Hamid ridicules those opponents of intervention who have asked pragmatic questions – “Today, it is fashionable to play technocrat and ask ‘what works?’” – but these are the most important questions. To not ask them, or to leave them unanswered, is to suggest the US march obliviously back into another disastrous war in the Middle East.

So what are the options for military intervention in Syria? A no-fly zone would require American airpower to disable Syria’s, but the Assad regime’s “anti-aircraft capabilities are located in or near urban areas, which means that significant civilian casualties could result from any attempt to eliminate them,” explained Marc Lynch of George Washington University in testimony before a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee back in April.

How about a so-called safe-zone? “Creating and protecting a safe area in Syria would…require a significant and lengthy investment of troops and resources, and would not likely hasten Assad’s collapse,” Lynch added.

Last month Lynch responded to proponents of intervention, like Hamid, who say the Syrian crisis could have been avoided if only Washington intervened sooner.

Advocates of intervention frequently complain that the United States could have prevented this fiasco through earlier, more forceful action. This is easy to say, but almost certainly untrue. Last year, a wide range of serious analysts inside and outside the government, including me, looked carefully at a wide range of possible military steps: no-fly zones, safe areas, bombing campaigns, arming the opposition. None could in good faith conclude that these limited military measures would lead to a rapid end to the conflict. Far from avoiding today’s tragedy, U.S. military intervention would very likely have made things in Syria worse.

Critics of the Obama administration’s approach, such as Sen. John McCain, have taken to saying that all the things opponents of intervention warned of – militarization, tens of thousands of dead, inroads by al-Qaeda affiliates – have now come to pass. This is only partially true. The U.S. military is not bogged down in another Iraq-style quagmire, steadily slipping down the slope of intervention as each limited move fails to end the conflict. There is no Pottery Barn rule dictating that Americans must prepare for a thankless and violent occupation and reconstruction. It is of little comfort to Syrians, but for the American national interest this is not a small thing.

Any kind of intervention, whether a bombing campaign or fueling a proxy war against the Assad regime, requires supporting an alternative to the Assad regime. This means throwing more support to the rebel opposition which is almost wholly made up of Sunni extremists looking to impose a harsh version of sharia law if Assad is toppled. Jabhat al Nusra, formerly known as Al-Qaeda in Iraq, has now become the foremost fighting force in the rebellion. The State Department just designated them a terrorist organization. Are these the groups Hamid thinks will bring peace and justice to Syria?

In October, The New York Times published an article confirming that “Most of the arms shipped at the behest of Saudi Arabia and Qatar to supply Syrian rebel groups fighting the government of Bashar al-Assad are going to hard-line Islamic jihadists,” despite the fact that those weapons were being sent with US approval and coordination. The evidence suggests this worsened the humanitarian situation in Syria.

Even if the opposition were not precisely the types of people Washington claims to be fighting in the war on terror, these kinds of proxy wars are never helpful. The US fueled militants in a proxy war in Guatemala for decades and ended up with something like 250,000 dead or missing. In Nicaragua, too, and about 60,000 people died in a country of only 3 million. And then there’s of course Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation, in which maybe a million people died, not to mention the fact that our “freedom fighters” later turned into al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

As Prof. Eva Bellin and Prof. Peter Krause in the Middle East Brief from Brandeis University found in their study of the Syria situation: “The distillation of historical experience with civil war and insurgency, along with a sober reckoning of conditions on the ground in Syria, make clear that limited intervention of this sort will not serve the moral impulse that animates it. To the contrary, it is more likely to amplify the harm that it seeks to eliminate by prolonging a hurting stalemate.”

These are just the beginning of the practical questions Hamid dismisses. There are many others, like, “what would come after we topple Assad?” Or, “how would such an intervention be justified under domestic and international law, especially considering Russia and China’s inevitable veto of any UN Security Council resolution pushing intervention?”

Even many in the Washington establishment oppose intervention, as Aaron David Miller wrote last month: “The idea that Syria was anyone’s to win or lose, or that the United States could significantly shape the outcome there, is typical of the arrogant paternalism and flawed analysis that have gotten this country into heaps of trouble in the Middle East over the years.”

What would a US military intervention in Syria produce? A descent into chaos and sectarianism on the order of post-Saddam Iraq. That conflict killed more than 650,000 people according to some studies and cost trillions of dollars. Thankfully, the memory of this catastrophe looms large over the Syria debate.




16 Responses to “‘Syria is Not Iraq’ – Right, It’s Worse”

  1. So you suggest, we just let a cruel dictator like Assad massacre hi sown people? So you believe the Syrian people don't deserve the defensive weopons to defend themselves against Scudmissiles, Airplanes, tanks, artillary and rockets? If we let Assad the warcriminal have hi sway, he will massacre 100.000's of civilians? Sometimes yo need a war and kill people, to prevent the killing of much much much more people. I am very disappointed in the anti-war movement.

  2. 1. It is none of our business. We support "cruel dictators" all the time.

    2. The same arguments were used to justify the Iraq debacle. We are now looking at a country which has enthically cleansed millenia-old populations, remains unstable and violent, etc. etc. At the cost of a trillion dollars and well over a million dead or damaged or displaced.

    3. The "rebels" very likely will be worse. Assad's military attacks are terrible, but many states directly threatened in this way by the violent opposition undertake measures as bad or worse. The U.S. army literally levelled Falluja and threatened to kill every male in the city. The U.S. Civil War involved 600,000 dead and untold wounded. Sherman's March was scorched earth.

    It is easily to demonize opponents by using histrionic, emotional language.

  3. Nobody's is saying that you and other conservatives and liberals can use your own money to send aid to the Syrian rebels.

  4. How strange that Syria was a perfectly normal place before the jihadis started a rebellion, with outside backing. Do you think Assad woke up one day and decided to start killing "his" people (which they are not, by the way; the country is currently host to mercenaries from dozens of countries, according to UN reports).

  5. First, last and always: IF they can see a buck in it, THEN the US will be there (also if the US feels itself slighted – see Iran, say); and since Jabotinsky set the stratagem, the Zs *must* do permanent, aggressive war.

    Even without the ‘limited hangouts’ via the mendacious MSM (i.e. NYT, WP), we know that the US is fomenting trouble wherever it wants (NED to CIA), usually associated with some ‘strategic objective’ = coveted resource. Add Wesley Clark’s “We’re going to take out 7 countries in 5 years: Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Somalia, Sudan & Iran” as the ‘cream in the coffee,’ it’s another “slam dunk.”

    It’s a bit silly to attempt a debate on more or less potentially killed if the US were to intervene or not; on the one hand, the US *is* already intervening and on the other, neither the US nor the Zs care how many they kill or otherwise get killed, rapine is the only game in town. Any moralising (R2P, say) is only the corrupt apologists attempting to wangle ‘resigned acceptance’ of some portion of the commentariat – since the people = ‘democratic’ electorate a) have no effective say and anyway b) hardly ever get the question put.

    With the US and Zs operating with every power-mechanism including murdering military, the quisling allies never raise a whimper of resistance and often collaborate (see Sarkozy in Libya), any US reluctance is only because they see some (current) deterrent to demolishing Syria à la Iraq. Most likely, only a matter of time. Not so BTW, some articles indicate that Assad has majority support in Syria.

    Bottom line: Since it’s US+ driven, the slaughter can be US+ stopped.

  6. The World´s main problem is the US missiles in Eastern Europe. They lead to Launch On Warning and Suicide.Russia will deploy LOW by 2017 and then it´s too late. It happens now and then-www.mcremo.com. But it´s just too stupid that we are about to blow it all up again. A Disarming First-Strike capability leads to Launch On Warning = Suicide but they can´t understand that in the Pentagon. It´s like 2+2=4 but they don´t get it in the Pentagon. “Bloody fools” said General Harbottle. Are we doomed ?

  7. Well…wouldn't this run afoul of federal laws prohibiting monetary support for terrorist groups? ROFLOL.

  8. 1. The US did not attack Syria (as in Iraq) 2, The fact that we have supported dictators makes "us" complicit in the crimes of those dictators. 3. Intervention (without "boots on the ground), will prevent those rebels you do not like (salafists) from gaining power in the fighting-they are there because "we" are not!
    4. I would like to re-state Brian M's oxymoronic comment as food for thought: It's none of our business; we support cruel dictators all the time.

  9. the US government actually cares about people being slaughtered rather than about furthering its own interests in the Middle East.

  10. [...] Originally posted here: 'Syria is Not Iraq' – Right, It's Worse « Antiwar.com Blog [...]

  11. "The war, itself, was one of the greatest strategic blunders in the recent history of American foreign policy."

    It was also a grievous crime, for which the architects should be hanged.

  12. The US and NATO have been planning the overthrow of Assad for many years. In 2011, it sent in special ops through Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan to begin the destabilization of Syria, only two years after Obama's malarkey love fest with Assad, and, it was no accident that it began at a time when Syria had begun a process of constitutional reform and was also planning a major pipeline with Iran to bypass Turkey and terminate near the port of Tartus. Had democracy been the issue we could have requested that Syria's elections scheduled for 2014 be monitored by the UN. Instead, we went ahead in classic COIN fashion (something we had done in Libya, Iraq (and Yugoslavia in the 1990's), and infiltrated demonstrations in 2011, beginning with sniper incidents which killed protesters and a child. It later escalated into bloodbaths and massacres in Homs, Hama and Houlas, which, in coordination with the media, we blamed on the Assad government as we proceeded to demonize him and his regime. There is no doubt that he ran a police state, but his country was stable and the most non-sectarian nation in the Middle East, and, in the early years of the Iraq War which we had started under false pretenses, had accepted almost a million refugees from Iraq and fed, clothed, housed them, and gave them medical care and educated their children- essentially, a new life- while we accepted only a few hundred- and the nation was moving toward political reform and economic growth- yet we could not stomach an independent, viable socialist nation (just as we could not tolerate an independent Libya). The U.S. State Department with all of its genius planners (Hillary Clinton, Susan Rice, Samantha Power ("Ms. Genocide"), Jeffrey Feltman, and Amb. Robert Ford ("Mr. COIN") and its genius neocon think tanks (Brookings, WINEP, USIP, et. al) were clueless as to how hard the country would fight back and the people would unite behind Assad, yet it proceeded, through NATO and its proxy allies to destroy and dismember the country, including the magnificent historic city of Aleppo, and go on a killing spree of horrendous proportions- an ethnic cleansing of the country to remake it in the US-NATO's image- and, ever hungry Israel, that has always wanted to annex the Golan Heights, has now, with the approval of the U.S, moved from a clandestine player to an overt proxy belligerent. This has been international war crime of huge proportions for which the U.S. and its allies have been fully responsible and must- and will- be held accountable. The irony is that if the election were held tomorrow, Assad would win. Why? Because he is the only one protecting his country from chaos, and had been the guarantor of non-sectarian peace up to the invasion and conflict. What should the U.S. do? Stop helping the terrorists, cut off the flow of arms and money, ferry the rebels out of Syria back to their own country, leave Syria and its government alone to do its own business, and try to negotiate some form of peace and amnesty for the opposition. This was a misadventure that should never have happened. The question is, will our leaders have an epiphany and change our foreign policy to one of peace, trade, investment and cultural exchange under the rule of international law, or will we continue to seek hegemony to destroy our competitors, plunder resources, and destroy our own society in the process? I'm not holding my breath that their brains in their feet will somehow levitate into their cranium.

  13. Well as a matter of fact you we did two years ago. Where do you think althis came from?

    The "salafists" (Jihadists) are your assets and working for you.

    As Eisenhower said "If it becomes obvious there should be Plausible Deniability".

    Or as said the Brain Dead policy of overthrowing secular Arab governments and placing Islamists in power.

    "We get the oiland you can have the sharia" in the delusional belief they can be controlled.

  14. Reply to Liberal; Here! Here! Followed by thunderous applause!

  15. Western embassies in Syria were aware of the ISLAMIC EXTREMISM being cooked by the Assads over the past 40 years!
    Loudest megaphones on mosques were spread all over Syria despite civil society's protests
    To every mosque institutes were attached teaching Quranic verses glorifying martyrdom
    And many more….
    Assads intentions were to scare the west by their "own Islamic Extremism" which they used perfectly in Iraq

  16. Hey Sal, the US government has not only supported more vile dictatorships than Assad but we’ve murdered far more with our barbaric foreign policy. Hell, Clinton is responsible for killing more Iraqi children then all the Syrian’s you claim Assad has killed.