For the United States, the manner in which we are now approaching intervention in Syrian is almost the negative, mirror image of Iraq in 2003. But might we be fighting a little too hard to avoid the mistakes of the last war, while ignoring non-military strategies, such as economic sanctions, that might be more effective?
Back then George W. Bush was itching for war with Iraq; Barack Obama is still trying to extricate us from Bush’s wars. Bush, and his Secretary of Defense, predicted a war that would be a cakewalk and an occupation where our forces would be greeted as liberators. Obama is under no such illusions and has no interest in embarking on any nation building whatsoever in Syria, promising a limited campaign and no “boots on the ground.”
On the surface, the biggest difference between the two interventions is the stated cause for each. Bush sold the Western public on war based upon Saddam Hussein’s hidden weapons of mass destruction. And we felt awfully mislead when those WMD’s never materialized. Unlike Colin Powell ten years ago, John Kerry today doesn’t have to make up stories of chemical attacks on Syrian civilians because we can see their maimed and dead bodies with our own eyes. Yes, we still have to trust the American intelligence assessment as to who employed the chemical weapons and how many have been killed. But there are not many plausible culprits other than the Syrian regime given who was targeted, how and when.
There are also, however, some haunting similarities. These are both wars of choice, not of necessity. Neither the U.S., nor any of our allies, was attacked. In both instances we acted (or apparently imminently will be acting) preventively based upon hypothetical geo-strategic concerns: in Iraq, that we would plant the seed of democracy that would spread to and stabilize the entire Arab world. And in Syria, that we are upholding a World War I-era "international norm" banning the use of chemical weapons, deterring Iran on its own WMD development and simultaneously reassuring Israel that it need not go it alone on Iran.
But what is the endgame of our intervention in Syria? Two years ago, Obama said that Bashar Assad had to go, but he has been reluctant to arm the rebels given their alliance with jihadi, Al-Qaeda types. In his speech yesterday, Secretary Kerry said our “primary objective” in intervening in Syria is “to have a diplomatic process that can resolve this through negotiation” – a political, not military solution. In other words, the Administration is not seeking regime change, but a negotiated settlement. So we are trying very hard to make sure that Syria 2013 does not turn into Iraq 2003-2013.
It’s hard to see how a pre-announced, short-term, limited cruise-missile barrage will change the strategic calculation on the ground and bring Assad, and his Russian and Iranian benefactors, to the bargaining table. And it risks asymmetrical retaliation that we cannot completely foresee.
If we’re not really committed to full-scale, sustained military intervention in Syria to topple Assad (or even threatening to do so), why not try something else that would bite his regime but not shift the balance of power to rebels we’re not quite sure about?
How about more stringent economic sanctions? Sanctions hastened the end of apartheid in South Africa and have for some time now been squeezing Iran – perhaps contributing to its election of a reformist president by a convincing majority.
A recent analysis suggests that Russia has been aiding Syria in circumventing international sanctions, and that with some tweaking, we could clamp down on Syrian financial assets held in Europe and have a real effect on its behavior.
If we’re going to go in a new and different direction on Syria, by all means, yes, let’s not repeat the mistakes of Iraq, but in doing so, also find an effective solution.