How Different Is Syria From The Invasion of Iraq?
The UN is still deliberating the wisdom of punitive missile strikes against Syria, but both America and the United Kingdom are readying themselves to attack the conflict-ridden country. The missile strike, if it occurs, will come ten years and six months after the U.S. and its allies invaded Iraq in March 2013.
The Western response to last week's chemical attack in Syria, internationally believed to be the work of the country's president Bashar al-Assad, could begin as early as Thursday night. Assad has blamed the country's rebels, and the UN has sworn that, given time, it can prove conclusively who's to blame. Still, John Kerry delivered what was interpreted as a "war speech" on Monday afternoon, and allies of the U.S. are lining up in support of immediate strikes.
The invasion of Iraq was widely criticized for being "rushed:" having promised hard evidence for Saddam Hussein's ownership of destructive weapons, former President George Bush found himself in a position where it was "politically impossible", said The Guardian, to back down from his original promise of war. Bush also swore that, since the country had performed human rights abuses, America had a moral responsibility to invade. Sounding familiar?
Russia has already called the rushed plan to strike Syria a "terrible mistake," and drawn comparison to the Iraq War. (We all know how that ended: thousands of fatalities, intelligence errors, and absolutely nil "weapons of mass destruction.") Iran has warned that attacks would destabilize the region, and China and Russia have implored the U.S. to at least wait until the UN comes up with conclusive evidence that Syria performed a civil chemical attack.
Sure, John Kerry, Joe Biden and other high-ranking White House officials have cited "irrefutable evidence" that Assad is responsible — reportedly referring to an intercepted call between two Syrian officials — but, says Hugo Dixon at Reuters, we should have learned not to act based on suggestive evidence. "This is all strong circumstantial evidence. But none of it amounts to proof," he wrote. "That matters because we have seen dossiers sexed up before — notably the one used by Tony Blair to justify the invasion of Iraq."
Though Iraq was reportedly guilty of many things — support of al Qaeda, human-rights violations, financial support for the families of Palestinian suicide bombers — little was ever proven, and there was no valid, singular incident provoking the invasion.
The use of chemical weapons to murder hundreds of civilians and poison thousands more, many of whom were children, is by any standard a gross humanitarian violation. And for more than a half-century, those have been punishable by immediate international retaliation. The leader of the Free Syrian Army has sworn that if Assad is not stopped, he'll use the same weapons to kill tens of thousands more (though the rebels' own agenda — to overthrow Assad — must be kept in mind here).
The Difference: Public Opinion
This one can't be underestimated. Back in 2003, Americans were still reeling from 9/11, and desperate for answers and retaliation. The last major war was the Gulf War, which was fifteen years before it; long enough to be a distant memory. As of today, we've spent a decade in wartime, and thousands have been killed. Every day, more than 20 veterans suffering from war's aftereffects commit suicide. There are no official statistics regarding veteran suicide, but estimates suggest that it is far more than the number that died in combat, which enlarges the death toll more than the Pentagon will admit.
"Our nation is tired of wars," writes The Examiner. "We have spent trillions and will spend trillions more to take care of our wounded from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Americans are war weary, our military is war weary, and our economy is war weary, but obviously most of our politicians are not." At the moment, according to one poll, the prospect of striking Syria is even less popular than Congress, which is currently supported by 15 percent of the population. Less than one in ten Americans at present support a punitive strike against Syria.
Those politicians are maintaining the same rhetoric that Bush and his aides practiced a decade ago: a passionate, personal account outlining America's responsibility to step in and end injustice. As the only Western empire, and certainly the greatest diplomatic power, the U.S. finds itself in a unique position to affect all the world's conflicts in some gargantuan way, if it chooses to get involved. In this case, says the White House (much as they said in 2003) America has a moral duty to lead the way to rights to innocent citizens — even though the United Nations was set up exactly for that purpose.
Similarity: A Fraught History
Though the combative Iraqi and Syrian regimes that the U.S. sought to displace are complex, the countries' leaders had one thing in common: a tense relationship with America. Prior to 9/11, the Bush administration had hoped to play a role in ending the brutal Iraqi dictatorship led by Saddam Hussein, but the Sept. 11 attacks sent that straight to the top of their agenda. Syria has been engaged in the post-Arab Spring conflict for two years, and the U.S. and its allies have aligned themselves firmly with the country's rebel group, most notably the Free Syrian Army.
It's difficult to estimate how many Iraqis died under Hussein, but experts place the number at close to a million. The conflict raging in Syria between Assad and rebels has, by the UN's count, ended the lives of 100,000 Syrians, plus the hundreds killed (and far more poisoned) in last week's chemical attack. But remember that the U.S. sought to "free" Iraqi citizens from the reign of Hussein, whereas the White House has clearly stated that its Syrian strike is punitive rather than restorative.
In both cases, international opinion has been mixed: some of Europe and all of Canada opposed the Iraqi invasion, and Russia and China are now opposing the Syrian strike. And as U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair unequivocally supported Bush, David Cameron looks to do the same to Obama. Importantly, however, the Arab League has demonstrated their agreement with punitive Western strikes, so the conflict stands more of a chance of remaining within Syria than leaking, Arab Spring-like, into the surrounding territories. The Arab League was badly split by the Iraq conflict and those that followed, so its seemingly resounding support this time may have been the final approval the U.S. needed to prepare for strikes.
Though the failure of the Iraq War has all but shaped Obama's presidency, they do say that history has a tendency to repeat itself.