As U.S. political and media leaders prepare for military strikes against Syria, the parallels to the lead-up to the war with Iraq should give us pause. Weapons of mass destruction, we are told, are being used by a cruel Middle Eastern despot against his own people. A military strike is inevitable, media voices say; we must respond with missiles and bombs. The arguments sound all too familiar.
U.S. intervention would play into the hands of the Syrian regime, triggering an outpouring of nationalist support for Damascus.
Meanwhile, weapons inspectors from the United Nations are on the ground investigating evidence of chemical weapons. But U.S. and European leaders are looking at an immediate strike anyway—although Britain's Labor Party, still smarting from popular opposition to its leading role in the invasion of Iraq, has successfully pressed for a hold on military action until the results of the U.N. investigation are in.
There are a great many differences between circumstances in Syria and Iraq, of course. Nonetheless, critics warn that, much as it did in Iraq, a military incursion here could have disastrous consequences. Here are 11 reasons the United States should stay clear of military action:
1. We don't actually know who is behind the chemical weapons attack. An attack employing chemical weapons took place in the suburbs of Damascus on August 21 and killed 355 people, according to Doctors Without Borders. Obama administration officials say the attack was carried out by the Syrian regime, but Institute for Policy Studies analyst Phyllis Bennis points out we haven't actually been given evidence that this is the case. And, while it's unlikely that the opposition was behind the attack, NPR has pointed out that the rebels have an incentive to use such weapons to trigger outside intervention and end the stalemate they've been stuck in since late 2011.
2. A military strike would be illegal under the U.S. Constitution and the War Powers Resolution. U.S. military attacks can only be carried out by an act of Congress, unless there is a national emergency created by a direct attack upon the United States. The fact that Congress has adjourned doesn't change that. "There is no provision in the Constitution or the War Powers Resolution for a 'recess war,'" says Robert Naiman, writer for Just Foreign Policy. If it was a true emergency, Congress could be called into session to pass a declaration of war.
3. It would violate international law, too. Syria has not attacked the United States, and there is no U.N. Security Council authorization for a strike on Syria. It wouldn't be the first time the United States has violated international law, but doing it again adds to a damaging precedent and contributes to a lawless world.
4. The American people oppose it. Sixty percent of Americans oppose intervention in Syria, according to a recent Reuters poll. Just nine percent support intervention. Even if the use of chemical weapons is proven, just 25 percent of Americans would support intervention.
5. Violence begets violence. According to Stephen Zunes, chair of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of San Francisco, military interventions actually worsen and lengthen violence in the short term. "Countries whose dictatorships are overthrown by armed groups … are far more likely to turn into new dictatorships, often accompanied by ongoing violence and factionalism," Zunes says in an article in Foreign Policy in Focus. In the long term, he writes, interventions only reduce violence if they are impartial, which would certainly not be the case in any upcoming conflict in Syria.
6. Foreign intervention will deepen nationalist support for the Syrian Baath Party and the Assad regime. Zunes also reports that hundreds of members of the Syrian Baath Party, a key source of support for Assad, have left the party in outrage over the regime's killing of nonviolent protesters. But, he says, "few defections could be expected if foreigners suddenly attacked the country." U.S. intervention would play into the hands of the Syrian regime, triggering an outpouring of nationalist support for Damascus. The same thing happened in 1983-84 following U.S. Navy air attacks on Syrian positions in Lebanon, he says, and in 2008 after U.S. army commando raids in eastern Syria.
Syria has become a venue for a war between the United States and Russia, and between Iran and an allied U.S. and Israel.
7. There are no logical targets. Bombing stockpiles of chemical weapons would be untenable, since many would release poison gases into densely populated neighborhoods, according to Zunes. And there are too many ways of delivering chemical weapons—planes, missiles, mortars, and so on—to eliminate all of them.
8. It will be impossible to control who benefits from Western intervention among the rebels. The Pentagon estimates that there are between 800 and 1,200 rebel groups currently active in Syria, according to USA Today. Among them are ones with avowed affiliations with Al Qaeda, Jabhat al-Nusra, and other groups the United States considers to be terrorists. While the House Intelligence Committee has said it's ready to accept the risk of providing weapons to such groups, a look at Iraq and Afghanistan shows how such plans can easily unravel.
9. Civilians will be killed and maimed. Policy analyst Phyllis Bennis points out the obvious: Strike with bombs and missiles, and, whatever your intent, civilians with no involvement in the conflict—including children and the elderly—will be harmed.
10. There is no apparent exit strategy. Once we are involved, it is unclear how we will extract ourselves from a massive, ugly civil conflict that could spread to involve nearby countries such as Lebanon, Israel, and Iran.
11. Yes, there is a better way. Tried, true, and boring though it may be, diplomacy often works. As Bennis told Democracy Now! this week, Syria has become a venue for a war between the United States and Russia, and between Iran and an allied United States and Israel.
What's needed, she says, are peace talks involving not only the parties who are fighting, but their backers as well. We need "all the forces on the two sides coming together to talk," she says, "rather than fighting to the last Syrian child, to resolve these wars."