What next in Syria: 5 lessons from Iraq

Story highlights

  • The United States should look back on lessons learned in Iraq
  • Washington is wary of getting involved in another quagmire
  • What would emerge in Syrian power vacuum?

The U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq led to nearly 10 years of occupation, nearly 5,000 deaths among the U.S. military and the few allies that joined "Operation Iraqi Freedom," a visceral sectarian-based insurgency and the meddling of neighbors all seeking to influence post-Saddam Iraq. What was intended as an act of liberation -- then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld expected the troops to be coming home in a few months -- became a quagmire.

Here are some possible lessons to be learned from that experience.

1. Don't get involved

The first lesson of Iraq as applied to events in Syria is a simple one: don't get involved, and certainly not with boots on the ground. Rather than entertaining grand illusions about making the Middle East safe for democracy, understand the very real limitations of intervention in a region beset with sectarian, religious and ethnic fault lines that cross, rather than follow, borders. The nearly 168,000 U.S. troops in Iraq could only stifle the violence, and the Pentagon has estimated that 70,000 troops would be needed just to secure Syria's chemical weapons, so the number needed to stand a chance of ending the bloodshed in Syria would be daunting -- and a logistical nightmare.

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President Barack Obama put it this way in his speech in Cairo four years ago. "America has a dual responsibility: to help Iraq forge a better future -- and to leave Iraq to Iraqis," he said. "We will support a secure and united Iraq as a partner, and never as a patron."

His audience applauded.

    The downside of this lesson, according to critics of the Obama administration, is that the United States is now afraid to lead and has been seared by the appalling cost -- in terms of lives, dollars and reputation -- of Iraq. The wars in both Afghanistan and Iraq became so unpopular at home that anything more than a token intervention in Syria would be a huge political risk.

    Christopher Chivvis, senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation, says that looming large over policy toward both Libya and Syria "is the dreaded cost -- human and financial -- of yet another entanglement, yet another war and the prospect of more American casualties."

    He notes that Libya has been left in a precarious place by a "reflexive fear of boots on the ground, pessimism about the very concept of nation-building, and an excessive emphasis on keeping the international presence to a minimum."

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    2. Know your end-game

    The invasion of Iraq and the prospect of limited strikes against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's military are two very different scenarios. The initial goal in Iraq, which was to remove Saddam Hussein, was rapidly achieved. There was a pause -- and a lot of looting by Iraqis -- before much thought was given to what should come next. The "handover" was never really thought through -- to whom, under what conditions? A deteriorating security situation was exacerbated by the demobilization of the Iraqi army. There was rivalry among U.S. departments and agencies and many of the plans for reconstruction that had been drawn up, notably by the State Department, were ignored.

    I recall attending a somewhat fractious inter-agency meeting inside the Green Zone, the massive U.S. hub in the heart of Baghdad, early in 2004. The official who was trying to revive Iraq's legal system pounded the conference table and exclaimed "Security, security -- I can't do anything if there's no security."

    As a state, Iraq virtually collapsed.

    Many observers thought the strategy for Iraq was bedeviled by a dangerous combination of complacency and blind ambition. The goals in Syria appear to be at the other end of the spectrum: they are very limited; designed only to influence a regime's behavior rather than remove it or level the battlefield. They are much more similar to the Clinton administration's goals with Operation Desert Fox against Iraq -- three days of cruise missiles and airstrikes in 1998 after Saddam Hussein's regime had obstructed U.N. weapons inspectors for the umpteenth time. Those had a limited duration and goal: contain a dictator.

    Obama, as an up-and-coming politician in 2002, echoed this approach in his opposition to an invasion of Iraq, saying Saddam Hussein posed no "imminent and direct threat to the United States or to his neighbors."

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    Similarly, on Syria, White House spokesman Jay Carney said Tuesday: "I want to make clear that the options that we are considering are not about regime change." So there doesn't need to be an exit strategy.

    But what comes next? If elements of the Syrian regime use chemical weapons again, will another batch of cruise missiles be fired? What if Islamist militants, among the most effective rebel groups, take advantage of the gradual erosion of the Syrian military? Would missile strikes snuff out any lingering hopes for a political accommodation?

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    Above all, after any "punishment strikes," is the bloody stalemate in Syria allowed to continue, with one million refugees and ongoing sectarian atrocities? Once you begin to intervene, the dreaded mission creep too often sets in.

    "We have learned from the past 10 years... that it is not enough to simply alter the balance of military power without careful consideration of what is necessary in order to preserve a functioning state," Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrote to U.S. senators last month.

    "Should the (Syrian) regime's institutions collapse in the absence of a viable opposition, we could inadvertently empower extremists or unleash the very chemical weapons we seek to control," the general warned.

    As Dempsey intimated, Iraq has shown that al Qaeda thrives in a vacuum and, once entrenched, can be exceptionally difficult to flush out. By 2006, al Qaeda was well established in Iraq under the murderous leadership of Abu Musab al Zarqawi. Only the U.S. troop surge and the Awakening Movement, a bargain struck between Gen. David Petraeus and Sunni tribal chiefs to work against al Qaeda, turned the tide.

    In their book "Endgame," about the war in Iraq, Michael Gordon and Bernard Trainor recount a meeting between then-Sen. Obama and Petraeus in Baghdad in July 2008.

    "Obama returned to his main theme," they write, "the need to expedite the withdrawal from Iraq to free up more forces for Afghanistan."

    "Obama said: 'Afghanistan is the central front in the war on terror.' Petraeus challenged the argument. 'Actually, senator, Iraq is what al Qaeda says is the central front.'"

    The experience of both Iraq and Syria (as well as Yemen and Libya and increasingly, Egypt) is that al Qaeda sees new hunting grounds across the Arab world. And Syria, at the heart of a very volatile region, is perhaps the most dangerous, because groups associated with al Qaeda such as the al Nusra Front are already well organized.

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    3. Be prepared for the aftermath

    The importance of a "functioning state" is all the more important because neither Iraq nor Syria are "natural" countries. They were arbitrarily created by British and French diplomats in the infamous Sykes-Picot agreement in 1916, which carved up the Middle East into spheres of influence and created grab-bags of very different tribes and religious affiliations that crossed borders rather than followed them. The 20th century history of these countries was one of weak government and instability intermixed with ruthless dictatorships. Power was invariably transferred by assassination, never by meaningful elections.

    So another lesson of Iraq might be this: If you want to remove a ruthless dictator, be prepared for the violent explosion of pent-up hatreds and fears. That happened in Iraq, and is still going on. July was the deadliest month in Iraq in the past five years since the peak of sectarian violence in 2006 and 2007; increasingly the Sunni minority talk in terms of armed resistance against an overbearing Shia-dominated government in Baghdad. In Syria, al-Assad's gradual loss of control has led to enclaves of Alawites, Sunnis and Kurds, while other minorities, the Christians and Shia, fear for their very existence.

    Very much part of this lesson: it is virtually impossible for foreigners to broker political solutions in these complex societies of ancient and overlapping loyalties and divisions. U.S. officials in Iraq failed to understand the importance of the tribes and the nuances of inter-communal relationships for years. Frequently, officers were on their second or third tours before they began to understand local allegiances. Ambassador Chris Stevens, who was killed in Benghazi nearly a year ago, was one of the few non-Libyans to understand the subtlety and intricacy of the country's regional differences.

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    4. Don't count only on military action

    The most obvious lesson of Iraq is that boots on the ground -- or any other form of military intervention -- may change the battlefield or topple a dictatorship, but they will not create the conditions for a political settlement. This is also the lesson of Libya, where a NATO no-fly zone and substantial weapons shipments to the rebels eventually tipped the balance against Moammar Gadhafi. But a country that had known no form of civic society in 40 years was left bereft of leadership and expertise. Tearing down a statue of Saddam Hussein, a Gadhafi compound or the headquarters of the Syrian Army's Fourth Division is a whole lot simpler than building something sustainable in its place.

    The invasion of Iraq also showed that acting without a genuine international coalition soon undermines the credibility of the mission. It was clear from the arguments at the United Nations on the eve of the Iraqi invasion in 2003 that the Bush administration was committed to military action regardless of what others thought. The Arab League (except Kuwait) and Turkey were vocal in their opposition, as was much of Europe. To begin with, that lack of support didn't matter, but as the going got tough, the United States (and then-British Prrime Minister Tony Blair) became more and more isolated in their efforts to stabilize the country. By contrast, the first President Bush spent months stitching together a coalition (one that even included Syria) and pushing a number of U.N. Security Council resolutions through before ousting Iraqi troops from Kuwait in 1991.

    The United States is unlikely to get a U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing the use of military force in Syria, given Russia's support for al-Assad. But Obama has made it clear that the United States will not act unilaterally on Syria. Beyond support from NATO members -- France, Britain, Germany and Turkey, most importantly -- the United States has the significant backing of the Arab League and the Organization of the Islamic Conference, which have both called for measures against the al-Assad regime. And in this instance, Washington can also draw on popular outrage around the world that any state would use poison gas indiscriminately against its own children.

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    5. Define the doctrine

    The (at best) mixed report cards from Iraq and Afghanistan have called into question the capacity of the world's greatest power to fashion change in remote places. In Afghanistan, a counter-insurgency strategy based on massive social and economic investment has sat uneasily with a counter-terrorism strategy that is much more limited in scope. In his early days in office, Obama spoke of bringing opportunity and justice to Afghanistan, with "agricultural specialists and educators, engineers and lawyers." But by 2010 there was a much narrower goal: degrade the Taliban and force it to the peace table,and secure population centers in the Pashtun south.

    A retreat into isolation -- recalling the old slogan "No Entangling Alliances" -- is not an option. The United States is still the "indispensable nation."

    "As long as it maintains precedence in world affairs, the U.S. will be called upon to help resolve crises like those in Libya and Syria," writes Chivvis.

    "There are no simple formulas or maxims to guide policymakers through the uncertain waters they must navigate," he adds.

    But some diplomats says a new doctrine is yet to emerge.

    "In my meetings with American policy makers I often detect a conversation between ghosts," Michael Oren, the Israeli ambassador in Washington, told the New York Times. "The ghosts of Afghanistan and Iraq are vying with the ghosts of Rwanda and Kosovo."

    Michael Noonan, who served in Iraq before joining the Foreign Policy Research Institute, argues: "Unless the U.S. enters a new phase of national strategy where the nation simply conducts punitive expeditions and then leaves immediately following the initial actions then we must be prepared for what the U.S. military has called "Phase IV" operations" (stabilization and reconstruction).

    David E. Sanger has written about the emerging Obama doctrine in his book "Confront and Conceal." Post-Iraq, he says, it amounts to "a targeted, get-in-and-get-out fashion, that avoids, at all costs, the kind of messy ground wars and lengthy occupations that have drained America's treasury and spirit for the past decades."

    In his first election campaign, the president frequently dwelled on Iraq as the "wrong war," tapping into a war weariness among Americans. He will no doubt be aware of the polling on Syria showing that precious few Americans support any meaningful intervention in the Middle Eastern country.

    But to pick battles according to how quickly and cheaply they can be won brings its own risks. The president told the American people after military action had begun against Gadhafi that there were moral and strategic reasons to act.

    "To brush aside America's responsibility as a leader and -- more profoundly -- our responsibilities to our fellow human beings under such circumstances would have been a betrayal of who we are. Some nations may be able to turn a blind eye to atrocities in other countries. The United States of America is different. And as president, I refused to wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves before taking action," Obama said at the time.

    Critics will ask why the much worse violence in Syria, over more than two years, does not deserve similar action. Sanger wrote last year that Syria is "a laboratory experiment in the limits of our power to intervene."

    The experiment is still unfinished. Syria could be the first of several states in the region to unravel completely, much as the former Yugoslavia did, rendering null and void the old imperial borders imposed by Sykes-Picot.