With the United States announcing it will finally begin to provide direct support to some Syrians, many Americans across the political spectrum are deeply worried about the prospect of another Middle Eastern quagmire. It’s hard to overstate how traumatized the American public was by the catastrophic miscalculation in Iraq.
But Syria is not Iraq. The American involvement will not only not be a repetition of the Iraq fiasco, it will be a completely different kind of engagement and in a totally different context. Here’s why.
1) The situation on the ground is completely different. There is an ongoing, major civil war between the government and opposition, and also battles between rival opposition groups (generally pitting patriotic resistance forces against Salafist-Jihadist extremists). There was no ongoing war in Iraq before the American invasion. This is not a situation we have created. It is one we can either deal with or ignore at our peril.
2) The regional atmosphere is completely different. There was a virtual unanimity in the Arab world in opposition to the invasion of Iraq. Now, to the contrary, virtually the entire Sunni Arab world, along with Turkey and others, are desperately looking for American leadership on the Syria question. Outrage at any proactive American backing of Syrian rebels will be restricted almost entirely to Shiite and other sectarian minority groups. The overwhelming regional majority will either welcome or tolerate it.
3) The international strategic context is completely different. The United States had virtually no support for the invasion of Iraq, which was inexplicable, indefensible, and eminently avoidable. Not only will a significant intervention in Syria be largely welcomed by many of those that opposed the invasion of Iraq, it has a clear strategic imperative, goals and context. The survival of the Bashar al-Assad dictatorship is crucial to the future of Iran’s hope for regional hegemony, and essential for the survival of Hezbollah as a highly effective subnational fighting force.
Should the Damascus regime survive in the long run, Iran’s regional sphere of influence also will survive. And the next stage would then be to attempt to expand it, probably in the direction of the Persian Gulf. This is also a proxy confrontation with a newly-assertive Russian international posture which, again, the United States can ill-afford to lose. So while the aims of the Iraq war were always mysterious, the policy imperative in insuring that, at a minimum, the Assad regime does not reestablish its authority throughout the country are very clear.
4) The nature of the intervention will be completely different. What is being considered now, as implied by Obama administration officials, will be insufficient but the likelihood and desirability of “mission creep” is clear. Once the United States gets involved directly in the Syrian conflict, it will have a much stronger stake in its outcome and a greater ability to shape the nature of the groups defining the opposition. The Iraq war was about unilaterally engineered American regime change. The intervention in Syria will be about helping Syrians themselves ensure regime change on their own or come to the point where they can actually negotiate a new post-dictatorship modus vivendi.
Rather than a long-term occupation, as in Iraq, this will involve major aid to specific rebel groups, including arms and other materiel, intelligence, command-and-control assistance, no-fly zones, and possibly a real confrontation with the Syrian Air Force and air defenses. But what it will not mean is American “boots on the ground.” As in Libya, the ‘Pottery Barn’ rules (“you break it, you own it”) will and should not apply in Syria. We can help Syrians get out of the mess they are in, but we cannot and should not dictate their future.
5) There will, therefore, be no quagmire, no massive Arab world backlash and no new battleground for al-Qaeda to fight Americans (though our own inactivity has already allowed them to use Syria as a new battleground anyway, so our intervention on behalf of other groups is likely to only undermine, rather than promote, that threat).
6) There are risks, but nothing like the obvious disaster, indeed trap, that awaited us in Iraq. The Syrian Air Force and air defenses, though probably overrated, are not as impotent as Libya’s, and there’s a real possibility of losing some aircraft and personnel. The Syrian regime, Hezbollah, Iran, and others might try to retaliate. Tensions will flare with Russia. But the idea that a limited, arm’s-length, Libya-style intervention in the Syrian calamity will be the Iraq fiasco revisited fails to take into consideration the obvious distinctions between the two circumstances.
Sometimes avoiding what’s necessary, or insufficient, risk-averse measures, can be almost as damaging as foolish, overweening hubris. American inaction on Syria became totally untenable. The new policy, for all its flaws, is no “Iraq War, Part II.”