As western leaders prepare to strike Syria, many ordinary people and observers, inside and outside the Middle East, are inevitably drawing parallels between this attack and the US-led war on Iraq a decade ago. Whether in its complicated ethnic composition and its prospects for further violence, in the weapons of mass destruction as a trigger for military action, or in the questions of legality and the likely diplomatic bypassing of the UN security council, a growing perception is that we are about to witness a repeat of recent history.
The Middle East is such a complicated place that these perceptions are not unreasonable. It’s not easy to make sense of Sunni versus Shia, Alawite versus Sunni, regime versus jihadis. Also complex is the debate over legality versus legitimacy of intervention. Western shifts of policy can be confusing, from watching tens of thousands of Syrians slaughtered to declaring the death of hundreds in an alleged gas attack a moral obscenity that cannot go unpunished.
Yet Syria is not Iraq, not in the evolution of its conflict, or in the attitude of western powers. Back in 2003, when the US invaded on the pretext of saving the world from Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction, only to find that there were none, it so badly mismanaged the transition that it provoked a Sunni-Shia civil war.
In the case of Syria, it can be argued that the popular uprising that erupted against Bashar al-Assad, the dictatorial president, in 2011 morphed into a civil war in part because of western inaction. The world stood by as thousands of Syrians were massacred by a regime that stopped at nothing in its war of survival, using warplanes and Scud missiles, and most recently the alleged deployment of poison gas to punish the mainly Sunni majority that rose against it.
Instead, it is extremist jihadis who flocked to Syria to fight on the side of the rebels, exacerbating the sectarian nature of the conflict, and, in effect, strengthening the cause of the regime that always claimed it was fighting terrorists.
In Iraq, moreover, the alleged arsenal of weapons of mass destruction was the pretext for a war that had already been decided. Failing to link Saddam Hussein to the September 11 attacks, (as at least some within the George W. Bush administration had hoped) the US turned to Saddam’s arsenal, and the inability of UN inspectors to do their job, to launch an invasion whose objective was to topple the regime.
The crucial difference in Syria is that US President Barack Obama has wanted to stay as far away as possible from the conflict, resisting the advice of many within his first term administration to arm the rebels and speed up Mr Assad’s demise. In his second term too, he has remained a reluctant interventionist. If he could find an excuse not to strike Syria, I suspect he probably would use it to keep the US out of this Middle Eastern quagmire.
That he set the red line last year at the use of chemical weapons was seen by critics as signaling to Mr Assad that mass killings through other means would not trigger American reaction.
Syria’s leader understood the rules of this gruesome game, at least for a while. He enlisted the support of Lebanon’s Hizbollah, the Iran-backed militant group, which fought alongside his troops to wrest back control of a strategic town near the Lebanese border. And the apparent resort to chemical agents was in very small amounts and within contained areas, its aim being to terrorise populations into fleeing rather than provoke mass killings.
Even after the Obama administration declared earlier this year that the chemical weapons red line had been crossed and said it would in response supply selected rebels with weapons, it moved slowly and hesitantly, with little sign of any significant involvement.
If, as the US and its allies allege, the regime launched the bigger chemical attack in the Ghouta area outside Damascus, which it has been battling to regain from the rebels, it could have been the result of its perceived overconfidence or perhaps a miscalculation of the impact of whatever mix of chemicals were used.
Despite the differences between Baghdad and Damascus, however, the shadow of Iraq looms so large and the perceptions of a repeat of the same mistakes likely to remain strong, which means that evidence of regime involvement in the chemical attack will have to be clearly, and credibly laid out, before the US and allies launch what they say will be limited strikes, most likely on military installations. The diplomacy too should not appear hasty or dismissive of the work of UN inspectors who are now in Syria, even if evidence of the chemical attack has been corrupted.
The rhetoric of western officials should be carefully calibrated, particularly in light of Iraq. To say that the objective is to punish Mr Assad and demonstrate that chemical weapons cannot be used in this day and age – and that it is not regime change – might reflect current western thinking. But it is not entirely convincing.
While it is true that the strikes themselves will not be aimed at bringing down the Assad regime, governments cannot pretend that the first western military involvement in Syria can be completely isolated from the raging war or from the broader policy of seeking Mr Assad’s departure.