Many debates on the anticipated U.S. intervention in Syria have pointed to the Iraqi invasion. And in many aspects they are comparable: chemical weapons, absence of UN approval, etc. It’s true that Americans are still carrying the wounds of hasty decision making regarding Iraq. No one wants to repeat the mistakes that were made in 2003. But it would be a bigger mistake to let these scars color our eyes as we assess Syria, and forget the virtues of humanitarian intervention that freed Kosovo in 1999.
Critics repeatedly point out the chaos that took over Iraq after the regime was toppled by the foreign forces, and still continues today. More than 700 people were killed in Iraq in the past few weeks because of political violence. Many opposed to an intervention in Syria are voicing concern over exacerbating the sectarian tensions in Syria - as was the case in Iraq. But there is one, very important thing they seem to be forgetting: The U.S. went into Iraq for regime change in an oppressive climate. Syria today is in a state of civil war.
When Bush intervened in Iraq, it created a platform for high sectarian violence. A group of actors emerged from the anarchy and began a struggle that the U.S. was both unprepared for and didn’t understand. But Syria today is not the Iraq of 2003. In Syria, these actors have not only already emerged, they are armed and they are at war. The Kurdish PYD and the Sunni jihadist Jabat al-Nusra forces - a group that is declared as a terrorist organization related to Al Qaeda - are claiming territories alongside Turkey’s border. The fight is no longer just between a peoples and a leader, but also among the peoples. The ethnic and sectarian rivalries are compromising the safety of everyone, including those in bordering provinces in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan – all of which are U.S. allies.
Furthermore, the conflict has already allowed Syria to become a magnet for jihadists and terrorists. Ambassador Dennis Ross explains that the fear now is not that Syria will be the next Iraq, but rather the new Yemen, where foreign jihadists gather to strike the entire Middle East. At that point, he says, “we will be sucked in, there is no doubt.” Syria, today, has already become the post-invasion Iraq. A U.S. intervention is not going to create a failed state out of Syria: Syria today is already a failed state in disguise.
When President Assad is eventually forced out of power, the world is going to observe the disintegration of a nation. For those closely watching the worsening events, it’s evident that this chaos as an end result has already begun to unravel itself, and is inescapable. Just as the argument stands that a U.S. intervention will accelerate this process, it also stands that not intervening will simply delay this end, most likely, worsening it.
The more the West lingers on decision-making, the window of opportunities gets narrower. Most importantly, the actors in the Syrian opposition are increasing in numbers and varying in ideology and agenda as the crisis becomes increasingly sectarian in nature, both domestically and regionally, with the involvements of Iran and Hezbollah. Thus far, the Western involvement in the Syrian conflict has been through assisting the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (SOC), since the recognition of the group as the “legitimate representative of the Syrian people” at the 2012 “Friends of the Syrian People” meeting in Marrakesh. The establishment of the Supreme Military Council allowed for a channel through which Arab nations could provide the rebels with arms. Nevertheless, as much as this group is relatively more coherent than other groups, ideologically it includes a range of Syrians including Salafists and extremist jihadists. The radicalization of most rebels in the opposition organizations, including the SMC, intensifies as the conflict grows. Consequently, channels for supporting the rebels in Syria are increasingly diminishing.
In face of this, the West seems to be reluctant in making a decision for intervention, which arguably is a direct result of the failures of Iraq and Afghanistan. John Kampfner writes, “The impotence of now recalls the blind eye the UN turned towards Rwanda and Bosnia in the 1990s; this in turn fuelled the full-blooded interventionist zeal of Blair and Bush. So has the world turned full circle?” In this regard, the situation in Syria is actually much more comparable to the intervention in Kosovo than Iraq.
Both Syria and Kosovo are nations that were part of a multicultural Ottoman Empire that, when dissolved, left ethnic tensions within emerged independent nations. Consequently, in both the Kosovo and in Syria today, the opposition forces against Milosevic and Assad were and are comprised a mix of groups with various agendas, signaling no easy political solution to the conflict. Similar to the Free Syrian Army’s composition, the Kosovo Liberation Army was also a mix of liberals, democracy-backers, intolerant nationalists and Islamic radicals – most of who were involved in various humanitarian crimes of their own during their quest for freedom. Nevertheless, NATO intervened in 1999 with a clear set of objectives including withdrawing the Serb military from the region, returning the refugees and providing political framework for Kosovo.
This success in Kosovo and the failures of Iraq provide a very important lesson for Syria. In 2003, the U.S. learned the hard way that without a diplomatic end game, the use of force is futile. The success in Kosovo, similarly, was largely dependent on the post-military diplomatic assistance. Now the question should be, what does the U.S. want to see in Syria, post-Assad? What are the tangible aims of an intervention, if carried, and more importantly, what is the long term political strategy? The U.S. was unprepared when Iraq fell apart. This time with Syria, it’s expected. So if Obama really wants to help Syria, he should ask himself: what do we do, this time, after the fall?