The Shadow of the Iraq War on Syria

By Abdulla Tarabishy

The Iraq War began more than ten years ago, and yet its legacy looms large today.  There is no question that Iraq is shaping the assessments of the Obama Administration as it prepares for military action a decade later.  Just as important are the impressions of the war-weary public, which have also been strongly influenced by the successes and failures of previous wars.

The fact that public opinion takes into account previous wars is not a new one. Wars generally perceived as unsuccessful will always lead to a lingering anti-war sentiment, so much so that after the US victory in the Gulf War, President Bush Sr. is reported to have exclaimed that, “By God, we’ve kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all!”

Bush could not have predicted that a decade later, another US president (ironically his son) would be fighting a war that would resurrect the Vietnam syndrome in the form of the Iraq syndrome.

It is perhaps unsurprising that the failures of Iraq are still fresh in people’s minds.  After all, the war only officially ended less than two years ago, and Obama himself was elected on a promise to end it.

The failure of the Iraq War is one of the most often-repeated reasons for staying out of Syria, and with good reason.  There are many similarities between the current situation regarding Syria, and the situation that the US faced in 2003 while preparing for its invasion.

Firstly, the obvious: Iraq and Syria are neighbors, both wrought with sectarian and ethnic divisions, both led by ruthless dictators with a history of opposing the United States, and both cases for military action reliant on disputable evidence that, in the case of Iraq, turned out to be dead wrong.

The problem with American intelligence on Iraq was that the US had a lot of information about Saddam’s deception and measures that Iraq had taken to hide things from UN inspectors, but little information on the actual WMD.  It had sources within Saddam’s regime, but these sources gave conflicting evidence as to whether Hussein had WMD.  The Bush Administration could not fathom why Saddam would be so secretive if he had nothing to hide, and so assumed that the regime indeed possessed chemical and biological weapons.

The evidence that the Syrian regime used chemical weapons is far stronger than that of Iraq.  Videos released show a large number of people suffering symptoms consistent with sarin gas exposure.  Independent organizations like Médecins Sans Frontières have confirmed that they received a high volume of emergency patients suffering the symptoms of chemical weapons exposure, and that they were treated according to that assumption.

There is also strong, but not foolproof, evidence that the Syrian government, not the rebels, used chemical weapons.  The weapons were fired from government-controlled areas of Damascus into rebel-controlled areas, specifically into areas the government had been trying to retake at the time.

The Syrian government’s behavior after the attacks is the most damning evidence of all.  It refused to allow UN inspectors into the areas where the attacks were reported to have taken place until three days afterward, instead continuing to shell the areas in order to obscure the evidence.

If the rebels had indeed been the ones to use the weapons, then the government would have publicized what had occurred and immediately allowed the UN inspectors in.  Instead it was the opposition that first reported the attacks; indeed, the government first denied that such attacks had occurred at all, only later declaring that the rebels had been the ones to use chemical weapons.

The Syrian government’s behavior simply does not fit with their claim that the rebels used chemical weapons, and all intelligence assessments say that the rebels do not yet have that capability.

The combination of all of this evidence is far stronger than the evidence used to justify the Iraq War, but it still relies, to a small extent, on assumptions.  However, the difference between Syria and Iraq is that even if all of the evidence were false, an intervention could still be justified by international law.

The UN’s Responsibility to Protect (R2P) provision states that the international community has a responsibility to intervene if a state is failing to protect its citizens from genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and/or ethnic cleansing.

Even if the Syrian regime did not actually use chemical weapons, the fact that they have killed an estimated 100,000 of their people with conventional weapons is enough on its own to justify intervention.  This was not the case in Iraq, where the only justification for invasion, dubious in itself, was the false claim that Saddam had WMD.

Another crucial difference between Iraq and Syria is the level of international support for intervention.  Before the Iraq War, the entire Arab League with the exception of Kuwait opposed the invasion.  Today, the only nations in the Middle East which oppose military action against Syria are Iran and Lebanon, both of which have interests to maintain.  The fact that the US can count on regional support this time should not be underestimated.

In addition to regional support, the US also has the backing of its NATO allies.  France’s opposition to the Iraq War was infamous, partly because it caused the Bush Administration to relabel ‘French fries’ as ‘freedom fries’, but France was also joined in its opposition by Germany, Turkey, and half of NATO. 

Today, every nation in NATO supports an attack on Syria in principle, and some, most notably France, are willing to commit their own forces to such an attack.  Support from American allies far increases the legitimacy of an attack on Syria and further differentiates it from the Iraq War.

The legacy of the Iraq War will continue to hang over the United States for many years.  The invasion eroded Americans’ trust in their own government and its intelligence, and destroyed the credibility of the US across much of the world.  However, Syria is not another Iraq, and the Obama Administration is not planning to make it one.

Many Americans no longer trust their government when it tells them that military action is necessary for our national interests.  They doubt their government when it says that this war is about spreading democracy, and they can no longer trust their own country’s intelligence when it claims that chemical weapons were used.  This is the legacy of the Iraq War, and it will be many years before the US government is able to overcome it.


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