Syria and the 'Lessons' of Iraq

Column: Syria isn’t Iraq. It’s worse.

Dead bodies after Syrian government attack on Ghouta, Syria on Wednesday, Aug. 21, 2013 / AP
August 30, 2013

In March 2003, an America-led coalition of 46 countries invaded Iraq to topple the Baathist dictator Saddam Hussein and end his pursuit of weapons of mass destruction. Saddam’s government fell in a matter of weeks. And yet it was months before coalition forces captured him, weapons stockpiles were never found, and ethno-sectarian violence persisted at horrific levels until 2008. Over the course of the last decade some 4,800 coalition soldiers were killed, many thousands more were wounded, and a hundred-thousand-plus Iraqis lost their lives. The human cost of the Iraq war was high and terrible, and no one wants to repeat the experience.

In March 2011, a civilian uprising began in Syria against the rule of Baathist dictator Bashar al-Assad. As the conflict persisted it took on a brutal cast. Sunni jihadists and Saudi and Jordanian-backed rebels fought the minority Alawite regime as the dictator massacred his population and decimated his society with the help of Russian arms, Iranian Revolutionary Guardsmen, and Hezbollah militias. So far a hundred thousand Syrians have been killed. More than a million refugees have flooded into Turkey and Jordan and Iraq. The dictator has deployed chemical agents against civilians on multiple occasions, including a recent strike in which 1,429 men, women, and children were killed. Al Qaeda-backed elements operate through swaths of the northern desert, and use Syria as a base of operations from which to reconstitute al Qaeda in Iraq. Here, too, the human cost of the war has been high and terrible. Indeed, quantitatively, it is worse than Iraq.

What is the difference between these two conflicts? In the former one, the United States was a participant. And America's actions produced the current end state that, while not optimal, is better than the status quo ante. The dictator of Iraq, his family, and his party are dead or disbarred. They will never again threaten their neighbors, gas their people, or restart their weapons programs. The world never will have to worry about Saddam Hussein becoming a nuclear power. Nor will the world have to worry, at least for the time being, about ethno-sectarian genocide in Iraq, about al Qaeda turning Anbar and Diyala Provinces into Salafist strongholds and training grounds, about an Iraq partitioned irrevocably and dangerously into three squabbling nations.

In the latter conflict, the Syrian conflict, America has not participated at all. True, there have been gestures. The American president has deplored the violence. In 2011, he demanded Bashar al Assad give up power. In 2012, he said the use of chemical or biological weapons would be a red line triggering a forceful American response. America assisted covertly in training some rebel groups, supplied humanitarian aid, and promised, after Assad crossed the red line for the first time, to arm the rebels. But these words have not been followed by any meaningful action. Assad is still there. And the rebels have not received what they were promised.

As I write this, after Assad has crossed the red line for the second time, the Obama administration is engaged in an oh-so-public debate over how best to respond. The president has offered to demonstrate proof of the chemical attack and the Assad regime’s culpability in it, while also saying any use of force will be "proportionate"—a "shot across the bow" (i.e., an intentional miss) that won’t target weapons caches but military facilities likely to be empty, and won't influence the outcome of the civil war.

Think about that: The president of the United States is saying he will deploy force only in so far as it has no actual effect on the situation on the ground. Instead the point is to "send a message" and, he hopes, deter the further use of chemical arms by a dictator who has used them on multiple occasions while slaughtering his people wholesale and turning his cities into piles of concrete, pipe, and ash. This, we are told, is how President Obama plans to heed "the lessons of Iraq."

And yet that raises the question of what the lessons of Iraq actually are. The Iraq war, as I recall, was meant to prevent the acquisition and use of weapons of mass destruction by a murderous dictator, and to prevent the possible transfer of such weapons to terrorists seeking to use them against the American homeland. Well, in Syria, there is no question that the dictator has weapons of mass destruction, or that he has used them, or that they might fall into the hands of al Qaeda elements. None of those things have happened, or will happen, in Iraq because we intervened. In Syria they already have happened, stand a good chance of happening again, and in the case of terrorists capturing WMD could happen if America continues to sit on her hands.

The president is emphasizing the "chain of custody" linking Assad to chemical warfare because, he says, he does not want to repeat the mistake of the flawed pre-war intelligence in Iraq. And yet he is already repeating that mistake by endowing the assessments of intelligence analysts with something like supra-legal force. The case for war against Saddam was based not only on intelligence but also on strategy: In a post-9/11 world, the risks of a rogue regime building WMD and handing them to, or allowing them to be captured by, terrorists outweigh the risks of action.

Intelligence is a murky business. Analysts are playing a Nate-Silver-like game of Bayesian prediction. And predictions, as we know, often turn out to be flawed. It was war skeptics such as Colin Powell who insisted on reducing the case for war to a specific, intelligence-based, evidentiary presentation to the U.N. That insistence came back to haunt Powell, and the Bush administration, when weapons were not found and parts of the litigation turned out to be heavily disputed or mistaken. Obama is already setting himself up for failure by pretending that international realpolitik somehow resembles the niceties of criminal justice in the Western world. He is so obsessed with avoiding Bush’s infamous "sixteen words" that he cannot see the strategic situation for what it is: extremely perilous and demanding action.

Another lesson of Iraq is that the use or non-use of American power has far-reaching consequences. Saddam’s regime was destroyed in a matter of weeks, and with relatively few troops. Then, when America pulled back, stuck to its bases, engaged in search-and-destroy missions focused on capturing and killing insurgent leaders, and tried to leave Iraq as quickly as possible, the situation worsened, and worsened considerably. Iraq entered a period of social breakdown, with sect turning against sect, family against family, block against block—just as we see in Syria today. The forces of international jihad filled the vacuum in isolated and marginal areas of the country, and began laying the groundwork for the caliphate—just as we see in Syria today. Frightened by the barbarity, the so-called international community said parties to the conflict had to reach a political settlement before the violence would end—just as we hear in discussions of Syria today.

However, in 2006, when the war in Iraq reached its nadir, President Bush flouted public opinion, the Washington establishment, and many of his own generals and members of his administration, and adopted the recommendations of a small group of foreign policy thinkers and current and former military personnel. Under his order, General David Petraeus assumed command of the Iraq theatre, surged forces into Baghdad and Anbar Provinces, and shifted strategy from "light-footprints" to population security. America, which had spent years looking for a way out of Iraq, finally decided, against the weight of the world, to provide basic security to its people.

What happened? After a brutal battle in 2007, levels of violence plunged. American casualties were drastically reduced. Al Qaeda in Iraq was defeated. The Iraqi government gained the courage and strength to take on Shiite militias. And with violence reduced, with terrorists destroyed, the political process was able to take place. That is because security is a precondition for politics. This is something Machiavelli and Hobbes understood but liberals, Republican or Democratic, do not.

In Syria today there is no security and no politics. There is a murderer and tyrant who has used the world’s deadliest weapons on several occasions and is likely to use them again and again as long as he is in a position to do so. There is a support network for Assad composed of America’s adversaries—Iran, its proxy Hezbollah, and Russia. There are groups of political Islamists who are not allied with the United States and who have committed awful attacks of their own against civilians. And there is a group of rebels who are not political Islamists and who say they seek a pluralistic Syria at peace with itself and its neighbors.

Syria already is Iraq. It is Iraq if Saddam had remained in power, and it is Iraq if America had left prior to the surge. It is the worst of both worlds, and it grows worse by the day.

One of the difficulties in writing about Syria is disentangling one’s position from the administration’s. The type of military action that is being discussed and leaked Niagara-Falls style to the press would be ineffective and meaningless. I oppose it. A few hours of cruise missile strikes on janitorial workers in military installations is not likely to deter Assad. On the contrary: It is likely to spur him to further use of chemical weapons so that he can portray himself as an agent of rebellion against the West.

But that does not mean there are no grounds for congressional approval of intervention to assist the non-Islamist elements of the Free Syrian Army, affect regime change in Syria, secure WMD caches, and roll back gains made by jihadists in the north. We are so focused on the possible risks of action that we have not recognized that the outcome of the Syrian civil war may be worse if America does nothing: unchecked slaughter, an aggrieved dictator, an emboldened Iran, loose weapons—conventional and otherwise—and an al Qaeda statelet in the north and east. Is Obama comfortable with that? Are you?

Just do not tell me that inaction is heeding the lesson of Iraq. The lesson of Iraq is that America was willing to pay a high price to guarantee that the world’s worst tyrant would never lay his hands on the world’s worst weapons. The lesson of Iraq is that with the right resources and the right strategy, America defeated al Qaeda and Iranian-backed militias and brought a level of peace and, yes, freedom to Iraqis that they never before experienced. The lesson of Iraq, which we are seeing right now, in real time, is that in the absence of American commitment, freedom diminishes and al Qaeda reappears.

Nor are the lessons of Iraq the only ones we should be heeding while we contemplate the mess in the Middle East. There is also the lesson of September 11, 2001. That lesson is simple. You may try to ignore evil. But it will not ignore you.