Syria Is Not Iraq

Why the legacy of the Iraq War keeps President Obama from doing the right thing in Syria.

Syria.jpgA Free Syrian Army fighter fires his rifle through a hole in the wall of a Syrian Army base during heavy fighting in the Arabeen neighbourhood of Damascus February 3, 2013 (Goran Tomasevic/Reuters)

More than a year ago, a real debate began over whether to intervene militarily in Syria. Here in The Atlantic, Steven Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations was one of the first to propose taking military action - or at least thinking seriously about it. When Cook wrote his article (which, in its prescience, is well worth re-reading today), around 5,000 Syrians had been killed. Today, the number is more than 10 times that, and is now over 60,000 according to some estimates. I remember, early on, wondering whether 15,000 would be a "trigger."     

But, apparently, there is no "trigger." Military intervention in Syria cannot happen without American support and there is nothing to suggest the United States has any interest in intervening, no matter the number of dead. The Obama administration has cited the use of chemical weapons as a "red line," but even that red line has managed to shift back and forth several times.

Opponents of intervention have, understandably, tended to focus on the risky - and potentially prohibitively difficult - nature of military action. Yet, the very fact that some "red lines" do exist suggests that the U.S. would be willing to intervene at some point, in spite of those difficulties. The question, then, isn't so much the difficulty of the operation as much as what is an appropriate red line.

If Bashar al-Assad proceeded to destroy an entire city, killing 100,000 people in the matter of weeks, presumably many of those opposing intervention would decide to support it. But why then and not now? Why exactly is 60,000 people not enough? Sure, the use of chemical weapons should be a red line for national security reasons, but why should strictly national security considerations be a red line, when the killing of tens of thousands isn't? It is this latter point which sends precisely the wrong message to Arab audiences and the broader international community. Nothing fundamental has changed in U.S. policy since the Arab Spring, even though many of us said, and hoped, that new realities required a new way of doing business. As I wrote nearly a year ago,

What made Libya a "pure" intervention was that we acted not because our vital interests were threatened but in spite of the fact that they were not. For me, this was yet one more reason to laud it.

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. But the Bush Administraton's misguided adventurism abroad has made open displays of ideology, or even simple morality, in foreign policy seem suspect. Today, it is fashionable to play technocrat and ask "what works?" Asking this question, as opposed to others, is a marker of pragmatism and prudence. As difficult as it may be, the thinking goes, we must do away with moral sentiments and attachments, which tend to distort more than clarify.

As 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?

Such questions are worth considering, and thinking seriously about, but they're unlikely to be resolved anytime soon. In returning to narrower questions of what, if anything, can stop the killing, a few considerations are in order. First, Bashar al-Assad might have a particularly high tolerance for brutality, but there is little to suggest he has ceased being a rational actor. And the unfortunate reality is that he has no real incentive stop the slaughter of Syrians unless there is a credible threat of military action. It is clear that this is a relevant calculation for Assad and the people around him. The regime has spent the last year testing its limits, seeing how far it can go. Accordingly, the rate of killing has never dramatically shot up. Rather, it has increased slowly and gradually, as Assad gauges the international community reactions and its willingness to intervene more aggressively. He apparently has gotten his answer.

Presented by

Shadi Hamid is a contributing writer for The Atlantic, a fellow at the Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World at the Brookings Institution's Center for Middle East Policy, and the author of Temptations of Power: Islamists and Illiberal Democracy in a New Middle East.

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