Syria Is Not Iraq

Even if the Obama administration has little interest in intervening, it seems odd, even remarkable, that it would choose to telegraph that lack of interest to the Syrian regime in such a flagrant manner. It would have made much more sense for the Obama administration and leading European powers, along with NATO, to publicly discuss military options and make a good-faith effort to consider them.

So much of the aversion to intervention, as mentioned earlier, has been predicated on Syria's supposed similarity to Iraq and the fear of entering into another quagmire. But no one, to my knowledge, was proposing a full-on ground invasion of Syria. Instead, what was being suggested was an escalatory ladder of varying military options. An escalation would be contingent on how the Syrian regime (and the rebels) responded. Mission creep is always a risk, but if there was ever an administration resistant to mission creep, it is the Obama administration, as became evident during the Libya operation, when the U.S. went out of its way to limit its involvement, even at the cost of prolonging it.

Another unfortunate feature of the ongoing debate was the tendency to treat the military option and the diplomatic "alternative" as mutually exclusive. They never were. On the contrary, they could have been pursued in parallel. In Bosnia, NATO power forced the Serbs to the negotiating table, leading to the Dayton Accords and the introduction of multinational peacekeeping forces. In Libya, the Qaddafi regime showed more interest in negotiating with the opposition after military intervention, rather than before (Within a few weeks of the NATO operation, Qaddafi envoys were engaging in ceasefire talks). 

Lastly, it is worth thinking about what this means for future instances of mass slaughter. With the Libya intervention, there was hope that a post-Arab Spring precedent would be set - that whenever pro-democracy protesters were threatened with massacre, the U.S. and its allies would take the "responsibility to protect" seriously and consider intervention as a legitimate option. But, nearly two years later, what we didn't do in Syria is more relevant than what we did do in Libya.

If I sound defeatist, then it is likely because I am. It is worth speaking frankly, and, unfortunately, this probably requires speaking in the past tense. For Syria, it is likely too late. Notwithstanding something sudden and entirely unexpected, the international community will not intervene. That does not mean that the Syrian people are doomed. They will likely "win" in the end, but their victory, if we can even call it that, will have come at a much greater cost - in the sheer number killed - than was necessary. It will have come at the cost of a country destroyed, of sects polarized beyond any hope of reconciliation, of Salafis and Jihadists ascendant, of a state too torn and divided for real governance. As has been reported elsewhere, the Syrian opposition feels that it has been not just forgotten, but, worse, betrayed. They are unlikely to forget this anytime soon. Anti-Americanism, a given among regime supporters, has slowly taken root among the opposition as well. The Syrian protest movement's Friday theme for October 19, 2012 was "America, has your spite not been sated by our blood?" In due time, the Obama administration's inability or unwillingness to act may be remembered as one of the great strategic and moral blunders of recent decades. Hoping to atone for our sins in Iraq, we have overlearned the lessons of the last war. I only wish it wasn't too late.


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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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