In his recent column on the U.S. airstrikes in Syria, Joseph Will suggested that the best course of action would be to limit involvement to avoid another Iraq. While his sentiment is understandable – Iraq was, after all, a quagmire – it simplifies a situation far more complex than we were faced with in 2003, assumes that the U.S. strategic goal for Syria, at this point, is regime change and incorrectly assesses the likelihood that airstrikes will spiral into a ground war. Finally, his argument also ignores the well-established but underutilized responsibility of the international community to combat atrocities and human rights violations whenever possible.
The current situation in Syria is far removed from that of Iraq in 2003. For one, Syria is currently divided between a plethora of different state and non-state actors. In the west, particularly along the coast, the Assad regime holds steady, slowly whittling away pockets of rebel resistance. In the north, along the border with Turkey, a combination of Kurdish, rebel and Turkish forces hold positions, denying them to the regime. In the relatively uninhabited but oil-rich interior of the country, Kurdish, regime and the IS fighters duke it out.
Iraq, on the other hand, was, at the time of the U.S. invasion, a relatively cohesive country. The uprisings that followed Saddam Hussein’s defeat in the First Gulf War had been put down and his regime held a monopoly on violence throughout the entire nation. In other words, the situation was far less complex as there was one primary actor to deal with — Saddam and his Baathist party.
This alone invalidates many of the similarities that have been drawn between the two situations. Quite possibly the biggest takeaway, however, is that attacking a unified nation fielding conventional forces is far less complex than dealing with a gutted regime and its supporting militia members that have been engaged in nearly seven years of guerrilla-style warfare. This last point is of particular importance, as guerrilla warfare, despite its unorganized and low-intensity nature, can tie down and bloody even the most powerful conventional forces. In Iraq, its army collapsed in less than a month, and it was only when the combat turned to guerrilla warfare that the U.S. faced any serious issues.
This complexity is not lost on the Department of Defense. While many often criticize the military for its tendency to “fight the last war,” the public statements of U.S military planners, including Secretary of Defense James Mattis, seem to reflect the opposite. Mattis and others have consistently warned of the risks that greater involvement in Syria would entail and frequently drew parallels to our failure in Iraq as justification for their caution. It should be noted that this caution stems not from superficial similarities in the lead up to the invasion of Iraq but, rather, in the occupation of the country. In fact, military goals have shifted since the beginning of the Syrian civil war. No more are we seeking regime change, but as Mattis says, “we’re going to make sure we set the conditions for a diplomatic solution.” Even beyond statements and strategic goals, the very limited nature of the airstrikes on Syria further reinforces the idea that the military is well aware of the risks of increased involvement.
This brings us to another problem with Will’s assessment, the airstrikes themselves. As noted, these airstrikes were highly limited, specifically targeting the chemical weapons capabilities of the Assad regime. In fact, much like the airstrikes in 2017, efforts were made to avoid accidentally engaging Russian personnel on the ground in Syria and sparking a wider conflict. These facts make it difficult to argue the point that these airstrikes “[have] the potential to develop into a full-blown international military crisis.” Particularly as there far more likely reasons for this to occur, namely Russian and Iranian meddling.
The total number of Russian and Iranian troops on the ground is unknown, but many of the reckless and provocative actions they’ve taken are not. For example, in February, Russian mercenaries working for a Kremlin-linked private military company attacked U.S. backed groups in Syria. Their attack was unsuccessful, however, and “a couple hundred” of them were killed by a combination of U.S. airpower and artillery. This escalation was bad enough on its own, but U.S. intelligence reports that the Russian oligarch who owns the company “was in close touch with Kremlin and Syrian officials in the days and weeks before and after the assault.” This senseless and direct aggression towards U.S. backed forces does far more to inflame tensions than limited U.S. airstrikes.
The Iranians haven’t stayed out of the melee either. For their part, they’ve been arming groups hostile to Israel and have been building up their own military capabilities along the contentious Syrian-Israeli border, a move certain to be viewed as aggression towards Israel. Iran is, much like Russia, an ally of the Assad regime; however, they’ve used this opportunity to help an ally to further a belligerent agenda that could put them into direct conflict with Israel. Israel, for its part, have been engaging Iranian convoys attempting to bring munitions to Hezbollah and an Iranian drone base in central Syria. The tit-for-tat escalation against one another in Syria risks coming to a head in a war that could drag in Israel’s ally, the U.S.
Aside from overexaggerated fears of an escalation stemming from the U.S. airstrikes in Syria, Will’s article echoes the rhetoric of many in the U.S. and overseas that simultaneously condemns war crimes – like gassing civilians – and any action taken to prevent them – like airstrikes. While proponents of this line of logic believe that these two perspectives are morally in line with one another, they do not take into account the responsibility of the international community to prevent such action from occurring or, failing that, to bring about justice for such heinous crimes.
This responsibility is not a new idea or one without precedent. Following the failure of the international community — the U.N. in particular — to stop the genocide of Bosnian Muslims by Serbs in 1995, NATO took decisive action to combat Serbian aggression. It did so again in 1999 when the Serbs committed further aggressive action and war crimes in Kosovo. In both situations, NATO forces did what the U.N. and its needless moralizing and deadlock could not, it brought an end to the atrocities.
If anything, this type of “holier than thou” thinking does more harm than good, condemning and limiting legitimate uses of force that seek to stop atrocities. Frankly, it brings to mind the concept of the “limousine liberal,” forever speaking out against injustices, but never willing to do what it takes to stop them. Force can sometimes be used for good and painting Assad as just someone we “deem … sufficiently evil” does Will’s argument no favors.
At the end of the day, it would be difficult for anyone to deny the seriousness of the crimes committed by the Assad regime and the explicit need for an end to this devastating war. I disagree with the argument, however, that this war and the atrocities in it can be brought to an end by staying out of it. Of course, expanded airstrikes or ground involvement could further escalate the conflict, but targeted airstrikes against prohibited and illegal weapons, in and of themselves, are not going to do that and, in many ways, are necessary in limiting Assad’s ability to further decimate his own people. We are not the world’s police, but we should not stand idly by while petty tyrants massacre their own people for the sake of order and stability.