On September 14, 2013 the US and Russia reached a treaty which forestalled imminent US military intervention in Syria. However, this was far from inevitable. Just six days prior, Secretary of State John Kerry laid out the case for intervention and stated that beyond a reasonable doubt the Syrian regime had used chemical weapons on its own people. In response, the administration planned targeted bombings to take out Syrian chemical weapon stocks. This plan was abandoned by a series of events, which culminated in a treaty that prevented US intervention contingent on the destruction of all chemical weapons in Syria. Despite the treaty, it is far from clear what will happen next. The US continues to arm moderate parties within the opposition. Therefore, if the treaty is violated, or if there is sufficient pressure from our allies, will the Obama administration intervene? After years of ill-advised foreign entanglements, using military force in Syria would be yet another instance of a US administration ignoring history.
In March 2011, in the midst of “the Arab Spring,” a civil uprising eventually led to what is now known as the Syrian Civil War. The Syrian Civil War has been a wide-ranging conflict between the Syrian regime led by President Bashar Assad and a diverse (both geographically and politically) opposition. Within this disperse opposition, one of the most powerful groups is Jabhat al-Nusra who are affiliated with Al Qaeda; making it hard for the administration to effectively channel support without invariably supporting terrorists. While US history is littered with ill-advised conflicts – most notably Vietnam – the Obama Administration only needs to look at Iraq to understand why it should not get involved in Syria.
The Iraq War began on March 20, 2003 with an invasion led by the US armed forces. US involvement in Iraq began after reports of weapons of mass destruction emerged in Iraq, which later turned out to be unfounded. After years of sanctions, congress authorized the use of military force and the US invaded Iraq. Initially, US forces were successful in occupying Iraq and deposing Saddam Hussein. However, they failed to stabilize the situation as they struggled to subdue ethnic tensions between the many factions within Iraq and ultimately withdrew. After eight years of occupation, thousands of American lives lost, and more than $1 trillion spent in Iraq, the country remains a war-torn and deeply impoverished country.
In Syria, similar ethnic tensions are present. A Minority sect called the Alawites are currently in power, while the opposition consists of both Shia and Sunni Muslims, making it even more complex than Iraq. Additionally, beyond ethnic tensions, the fragmented nature of the opposition has made it extremely difficult for the US government to deal with the situation. Given our failure to handle a similar, potentially less complex situation in Iraq, it is unlikely that further intervention in Syria would be effective.
Despite signing a treaty with Russia, the Obama administration continues to arm the opposition. Given our financial involvement, it appears inevitable that pressure will mount again for intervention. A string of fortuitous events has only delayed intervention, however in order to avoid further involvement, the Obama administration must learn the lessons of Iraq. If they don’t, history is doomed to repeat itself.