Syria Is Exactly Like (and Nothing Like) Every Other War

An attack on Syria would be exactly like Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Kosovo, and World War I. But it would also be absolutely nothing like Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Kosovo, World War I, and Vietnam.

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Attempts to understand the potential U.S.-led military strike in Syria have made amateur historians of us all. The events in Syria are specific to Syria, but that hasn't kept journalists from comparing other wars to Syria as a source of reference. George Packer criticized some of these comparisons in a debate with himself in The New Yorker on Thursday: "That’s the problem with these arguments. Iraq! Vietnam! Valley Forge! Agincourt! People resort to analogies so they don’t have to think about the matter at hand."

Well let's think about the matter at hand and look at some of these analogies. After inspection, it turns out Syria is exactly like Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Kosovo, and World War I. But it's also absolutely nothing like Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Kosovo, and World War I. So there you go.

War: Iraq

Why Syria is just like Iraq:

The comparisons of Iraq to Syria are numerous, and they are universally used as an example of why not to intervene. Former military men like Navy veteran Jack Camwell are particularly fond of this point, in the negative sense, as Camwell write explains:

It seems like 2003 all over again. A despotic Middle Eastern regime is accused of using chemical weapons on its own people, and the White House is mulling military action. How many times must America go down this road?

It's not just war-weary Americans making this point. Though obviously from a different perspective, Russia's foreign minister argued along similar lines to Camwell in his criticism of the potential attack:

The situation “brings to mind the events of 10 years ago, when, on the pretext of false information about the Iraqi possession of weapons of mass destruction, the United States outside the U.N. went on an adventure, the consequences of which are well known."

These two sources — a military veteran and a Russian diplomat — presumably make up two very different sides of the American foreign policy spectrum. Yet both use Iraq-Syria comparisons. They must be correct then, right?

Why Syria is nothing like Iraq:

If the U.S. government is to convince the public that attacking Syria is necessary, it will certainly need to reject the Iraq comparison. “Iraq and Syria are in no way analogous,” a State Department spokeswoman said. British Prime Minister David Cameron agrees: "I am deeply mindful of the lessons of previous conflicts... but this is not like Iraq."

But these comments aren't just political talk; the origins of the wars are exceedingly different, as Financial Times international editor David Gardner points out:

The fundamental difference between Syria and Iraq is that Syria began as an attempt by a mass movement of Syrians to free themselves from tyranny. Iraq was an unprovoked invasion that was obviously going to: break a state and its already traumatised society; proliferate Sunni jihadism of the Bin Ladenist variety; and, because of Iraq’s Shia majority, immeasurably strengthen Iran. 

The attack on Syria is a direct response to Assad's use of chemical weapons. The Iraq War was a direct response to ... 9/11? In addition, Obama said today that any Syria operation would not have "boots on the ground" and would not be an open-ended commitment.

War: Afghanistan

Why Syria is just like Afghanistan:

Almost every argument Americans use about being weary of Middle East war use both Afghanistan and Iraq to argue against attacking Syria. Columnist Thomas Mullen explains in The Washington Times Communities:

After twelve years of war, hundreds of thousands of U.S. and foreign civilian casualties and trillions in debt, the U.S. has accomplished nothing in the Middle East. They haven’t eradicated the Taliban or Al Qaeda. There has not been a single regime change favorable to U.S. interests. Americans are not freer. They are less free than they have ever been in U.S. history.

The Obama administration’s response? Do it again.

The "it" that Mullen refers to here is to go to war in Syria just like in Afghanistan. Both are in the Middle East, and both include military attacks. Therefore, Mullen argues, they are similar.

Why Syria is nothing like Afghanistan:

The strategy of each war make the comparisons kind of moot. Secretary of State John Kerry declared today that the Syria attack would be nothing like Afghanistan (or Iraq), and there would be no soldier-led invasion. The differences in the way the war will be fought do make for some issues, though, as one Army officer told The Washington Post: "We have been fighting the last 10 years a counterinsurgency war. Syria has modern weaponry. We would have to retrain for a conventional war." The strategy that the U.S. employs fighting in Afghanistan would not relate to Syria, so it's hard to make a good comparison between how the two would go.

War: Libya

Why Syria is just like Libya:

The limited strikes against Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi, without American troops on the ground, make Libya appear to be a good comparison to Syria. The Christian Science Monitor explains:

If the United States attacks Syria, it’s likely to be much like the opening hours of the multinational military effort which ousted Moammar Gadhafi from power in Libya in 2011 – wave after wave of ship-based cruise missiles, launched at night and with considerable accuracy at military targets.

Those ship-based Tomahawk cruise missiles were fired at Libya from nearby navy ships, and the U.S. has already positioned five of its warships in the seas near Syria as they await orders.

Why Syria is nothing like Libya:

First, Syria's alliances with China and Russia protect it from U.N. action, whereas Libya was a state in relative isolation, NPR explains in a post titled "Why Syria Is More Complicated Than Libya." Secondly, Syria's rebel forces are incredibly jumbled and the U.S. refuses to take sides. In Libya, though, America actively supported Qaddafi's main rebel group.

Most importantly, there is the difference in the overarching goal of the attack. "In Libya, Obama and his allies sought to take out Qaddafi. In Syria, the president has described the U.S. goal as preventing the use of chemical weapons." Obama has repeatedly asserted this week that any attack on Syria would not be an attempt to oust Assad from power.

War: Kosovo

Why Syria is just like Kosovo:

Kosovo provides the closest blueprint to Libya, at least in the eyes of Obama administration national security aides, who are currently studying the Kosovo engagement. "Kosovo, of course, is a precedent of something that is perhaps similar," one senior administration official told The New York Times. In the words of the article's author, the NATO-led bombings of Serbian forces who waged ethnic cleansing against Kosovo Albanians have some similarities to Syria: "civilians were killed and Russia had longstanding ties to the government authorities accused of the abuses."

In addition, Slate's Fred Kaplan notes that like in Kosovo, another NATO attack could be in the offing here to avoid a unilateral force:

But where can Obama turn for the legitimacy of a multinational alliance? Nobody has yet said, but a possible answer is, once again, NATO—this time led perhaps by Turkey, the alliance's easternmost member, whose leaders are very concerned by the growing death toll and instability in Syria just across their southern border.

If the Obama administration is studying Kosovo, there must be some similarities, right?

Why Syria is nothing like Kosovo:

Well, not so much, say veteran military planners of the Kosovo War.

"The similarities between what we did in Kosovo and what is now being proposed in Syria are exactly zero," said Peter Galbraith, the former Ambassador to Croatia and close ally of the late Richard Holbrooke. "The situations are completely different. In Kosovo, we had a partner. In Syria, we don’t. Kosovo is small, Syria is large."

Those are very simple and easy to understand differences. Kosovo small. Syria big. Kosovo we are together. Syria we are alone. Foreign Policy's Elias Groll delves a bit deeper, and settles on the same overall idea. Unlike Syria, Kosovo had major overarching goals, and in the end needed U.N. ground forces to complete those objectives. The KFOR — Kosovo Force — are still there to this day.

George Packer in The New Yorker highlights that those things just aren't going to happen in Syria.

This isn’t Kosovo. The Syrian rebels aren’t the K.L.A. Assad isn’t Milosevic. Putin isn’t Yeltsin. This is far worse. Kosovo became a U.N. protectorate. That’s not going to happen in Syria.

No U.N. status for Syria, then. Okay, so comparisons to Kosovo are not wholly accurate either. What else is left?

War: World War I

Why Syria is just like WWI:

Chemical weapons were first introduced to the world at the Battle of Verdun in World War I, and their terrifying use in that war led to the norms against chemical weapons. Those same norms are still in place now, and the main cause of the U.S. consideration of intervention.

Aside from that, Kerry and Obama have warned that not attacking Syria could threaten America's allies, like Israel. The U.S. would come to defend that attack. Would Russia and China retaliate? "This could be the thing that triggers an Israel-Iran war, and how do we stay out of that? My God, it feels like August, 1914," one of George Packer's inner monologue voices exclaims.

And The Week argues that Obama's closest presidential comparison is Woodrow Wilson, who campaigned on an anti-war platform and then eventually entered World War I.

Why Syria is nothing like that one war:

World War I included most of the world. America can't even get its best ally to join an attack.

(Photo of Afghanistan: AP Photo/Anja Niedringhaus; Photo of Libya: AP Photo/Bela Szandelszky; Photo of Kosovo: AP Photo/Giorgos Nissiotis; Photo of World War I: AP Photo)

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.