Over the past week, commentators on the Syrian conflict have focused the discussion on a United Nations investigation into the use of a nerve agent known as sarin. The deaths of 70,000 people by conventional weapons is horrific enough — why the addition of chemical weapons makes the Syrian bloodshed so much more outrageous is a mystery to me. Nevertheless, interventionists are beating the “red line” drum and hoping that the Obama administration will take their advice this time.
But underneath the politics and rhetoric, the push for intervention isn’t really about chemical weapons. Nor is it about civilian casualties. The U.S. cares about Syria because it has been, is, and will be a breeding ground for anti-U.S. sentiment. And there is nothing wrong with the U.S. taking a more clinical approach to the Syrian crisis, unlike what many neoconservatives and liberal interventionists will tell you as they berate the administration from their cheap moral high ground. The real question is, will intervention make the U.S., Syria, and the rest of the world more secure? No one should feel comfortable answering that question without thinking about Iraq.
Last month was the deadliest in Iraq in almost five years, with 434 civilian deaths alone. Sunnis and former Ba'athist regime members continue to experience marginalization and exclusion, as demonstrated by the uptick in Sunni protests nationwide. Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq, a Shi'a resistance group notorious for its attacks on U.S. personnel during the last years of the occupation, is accruing serious political traction through its unofficial ties to the Maliki regime and actively campaigning for the ideological interests of neighboring Iran. Sunni militant groups, including al-Qai'da's Iraqi affiliate, are mobilizing at an increasing rate in response to government targeting.
Wait just a moment — wasn't the surge in 2007 supposed to curb sectarian tensions and violence? Yes, it was. And its tenuous gains might still be visible if the U.S. military were to remain indefinitely in Iraq to enforce them, but most of us didn't want that, as I remember. General David Petraeus himself admitted that the surge's impact on sectarian strife was "not self-sustaining." Forcing a time-out on the violence in Syria would be no less exhaustive of an effort.
Even with the stinging memories of death, wasted resources, and loss of international reputation, many of us haven't managed to take the occupation of Iraq for the valuable lesson it is. Some have argued for a no-fly zone as a limited, cautious method of intervention, but several experts rightly insist that any use of air power will require a sustained and potentially costly operation.
Furthermore, with any enduring military presence, the U.S. will have to be prepared to mediate and support the arduous process of reconstruction to some degree. It's dangerously easy to assure ourselves that we'll bow out once the post-conflict era begins, but if you believe that will actually be the case, I would remind you of the classic image of our 43rd president giving a confident thumbs-up on the USS Abraham Lincoln 10 years ago this month.
It is extremely difficult to watch the acute suffering of the Syrian people at the hands of their government. But violence and oppression can be found in all regions of the world, and implementing artificial and temporary solutions through military force is a futile, short-sighted, and self-serving strategy, regardless of the empathy we feel.