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?

Is the use of chemicals a “red line”? Should the West intervene? Send us your views.

CNN  — 

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.

How did we get here?

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.”

Congress seeks a voice on Syrian chemical weapons response

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.