The Tale of Two Wars: Why Syria and Iraq Are Different, Yet the Same

August 31, 2013

Pundits' comparisons between President Obama's likely military action against Syria and President George W. Bush's decision to invade Iraq are superficial and create false equivalence. Many of those, who draw this analogy, are making a poorly veiled effort to retroactively justify the ill-advised, destabilizing war-of-choice led by President Bush.

What They Have in Common

True, in both cases, Iraq and Syria were/are run by dictators who committed heinous crimes against humanity. Saddam Hussein slaughtered many Shiites and Kurds, especially following the first Gulf War.

In the case of Syria, such genocide stretches across the leadership of Hafez al-Assad, who for example murdered anywhere between 10,000-40,000 Sunnis in the town of Hama in 1982, and his son Bashar, the current president, who is responsible for more than 100,000 deaths over the last two years of civil war.

True, both Hussein and Assad were fairly secular leaders, but each belonged to the religious minority in their respective countries. Hussein was Sunni in a predominantly Shiite country, while Assad is Alawite, arguably a Shiite sect, in a predominantly Sunni country. 

And true, both countries are not only divided by religion, but also have vocal Kurdish minorities seeking independence.

How They Are Different

President Bush based the case for the Iraq war primarily on his claim that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), including nuclear weapons. As we all know, no such weapons were ever found.

President Bush's backup war justification was the oppressiveness of the Hussein regime, which during his reign claimed the lives of approximately 250,000 Iraqis. Many were killed after Shia and Kurdish uprisings that occurred following the first Gulf War in 1991, successfully prosecuted by George W.'s father, George H.W. Bush. While there is certainly no statute-of-limitations for genocide, the worst of these atrocities had long passed when George W. Bush ordered Iraq's invasion.

President Bush's third casus belli was that Hussein and his regime were actively supporting and hosting al-Qaeda terrorists, who were responsible for the attacks of September 11, 2001. While al-Qaeda fighters follow the Sunni faith, the organization deeply distrusted the secular regime of Saddam Hussein. In fact, people like Saddam Hussein were precisely the kind of Arab leaders Osama bin-Laden and his followers most despised. 

In the aftermath of the U.S. invasion it was found that there had been no collusion between the Hussein regime and al-Qaeda. On the contrary, following U.S.-induced regime change, huge political instability in Iraq allowed al-Qaeda forces to enter the country causing massive death and destruction, including to the U.S. military.

So, How About Syria?  

Well, first of all there is little doubt that the country indeed has a large stockpile of chemical weapons (WMDs). Second, nobody needs to go as far back as the slaughter in Hama of 1982 in order to document atrocities by the Syrian regime.

At current, the count of Assad's mass murder is reaching Rwandan proportions and the use of chemical weapons has now added a new dimension to the civil war. Without doubt, the Assad regime is a clear and present danger to its own people.

Third, there are indeed al-Qaeda forces active in Syria. And herein lies one of the key problems. These forces are aligned with rebel Sunnis fighting Assad. This is where President Obama's conundrum is buried.

Action vs. Inaction and the Unpredictable Law of Unintended Consequences

So, while Iraq is not the right comparison to the President's considerations on Syria, he is probably contemplating other historical guidance in evaluating his "all options are bad" situation.

Action: Is Syria Like Afghanistan in the 1980s? 

During the nine-year war between insurgents trying to overthrow the Soviet puppet regime in Afghanistan and Soviet forces, the U.S. openly supported the best-organized group of insurgents, the Mujahedeen.

The withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan in 1989 eventually led to the Taliban takeover, one of history's most brutal regimes, which rose out of the ranks of U.S.-supported Mujahedeen.

Of course, it was the Taliban who played host to al-Qaeda as Osama bin-laden planned the 9/11attacks on the U.S.

Could U.S. intervention in Syria and aiding the rebels inadvertently lead to a similar outcome?

Inaction: Or is Syria More like Iran in the Final Years under Shah Reza Pahlavi in the Late 1970s?

During those years, the U.S. supported the Shah against growing public opposition in Iran. The U.S. government failed to support then-existing alternative regime options that would have been secular in nature, but less inclined to continue the Shah's oppression.

The belated withdrawal of support for the Shah gave the best organized opposition, Islamic clerics under the leadership of Ayatollah Khomeini, an insurmountable advantage to gather the Iranian people behind it in 1979.

Could a further delay of action against Assad bring about an al-Qaeda led Syria as the only "organized" alternative?

Wavering Between Action and Inaction

Presumed national security interests dictated the decisions that were made in Iran and Afghanistan in the 1970s and 1980s. However, these two examples also clearly underline how treacherous such dictate can be without considering the potential for unintended consequences of one's actions.

President Obama is well aware of the complexities of the Syrian civil war with multiple rebel factions. He knows of the risks to support rebels who may turn against us, once in place, and in the case of Syria may have immediate access to WMDs.

By the same token the President recognizes that inaction may have a demonstration effect especially with regard to Iran, itself in pursuit of WMDs.

It is, therefore, that he seems to suggest a limited military intervention in Syria, maybe some surgical strikes on military facilities that will not solve the civil war, but appear to lay down the law.

President Obama has already acknowledged that the intervention that he is contemplating will not stop the killing in Syria, will not stop the civil war and will not lead to a transition government that will not turn against the U.S.

His presumption that surgical military strikes will likely deter Syria and other countries from using WMDs is a hopeful thought, but not much more. 

How to Decide and the Need for a Military Objective

This is nothing like Iraq. There seems ample proof that Syria possesses and, in fact, has used chemical weapons.

And still, this is every bit like Iraq, because there is no clearly defined objective of U.S. military intervention in Syria. The disregard by President Bush that an invasion of Iraq was likely going to lead to chaos, immense loss of life and treasury as well as regional destabilization was reckless even if his justifications for the war had been proven right.

The unspeakable horrors, for which Bashar al-Assad should be held accountable, undoubtedly justify the anger of the President and the international community, but military action is only meaningful with a clear and achievable objective that is more than just symbolic. At the same time, any such action must be carefully balanced against the risk of unintended consequences. These are the true lessons of Iran, Afghanistan and Iraq.     

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