“We want to demonstrate the consequences of flouting international obligations,” the Republican Defense Secretary said, speaking on behalf of his boss, a Democrat. The year was 1998, the president was Bill Clinton, and the villain of the day was Saddam Hussein. A few days later, the United States and United Kingdom began a 70-hour bombing campaign in Iraq to punish Saddam for openly obstructing UN weapons inspectors.
Today, another Democratic president and his Republican Defense Secretary are about to launch a limited war against the veritable cousin of Saddam’s regime in the Ba’athist one of Bashar al-Assad. Mr. Assad has not only interfered with UN investigators but has also used chemical weapons against civilians at least twice this year, prompting heightened calls for Western strikes. Interventions in Iraq (1991 and 1998), Kosovo (1999), and Libya (2011) serve as important precedents for the impending war, though the sheer complexity of the Syrian crisis and the lack of strategic thinking on the part of war hawks should trouble the international community.
It is useful to recall how the Western coalition arrived at this position. The rebellion against Mr. Assad broke out in March, 2011, on the heels of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions. In August of that year, Barack Obama explicitly stated, “Assad must go.” As the pan-Syrian revolution degenerated into a civil war with a jihadist tinge, the U.S. president drew a red line and promised that the use of chemical weapons would change his calculus. When Mr. Assad used these weapons against civilians last week, that line had been crossed and the preparations for war began.
With intervention imminent, the first model the West may follow is the Gulf War example of 1991 when the U.S. assembled a diverse coalition of states – including Arab states – to expel Saddam from Kuwait. The mission had the UN Security Council’s blessing and international legitimacy. U.S. officials today are adamant, however, that the intervention in Syria will be limited and retaliatory, so the successful Gulf War model will likely be shelved. The White House has expressed little interest in the muscular diplomacy needed to form a diverse coalition and the U.S. public is wary of another war with vague objectives against an Arab dictator.
The second and oft-forgotten bombing of Iraq, in 1998, is the most approximate precedent for what could soon unfold. In this case, the U.S. and its allies will conduct a series of strikes from the sky against key military strongholds in Syria to punish Assad for breaching sacrosanct norms of warfare. “We’ve got to be sly, like a fox,” the general leading Operation Desert Fox, the codename of the 1998 mission, said at the time. Though Desert Fox was an immediate success, one cannot forget that only three years after bombing Baghdad, the drumbeats of war had restarted and were louder than ever.
Mr. Obama’s national security officials have cited the Kosovo example as the one most likely to be followed: a humanitarian intervention without UN approval. Like Mr. Assad, Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic had committed crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing of Kosovo’s Albanians, precipitating NATO strikes against his regime. While Mr. Obama’s team has focused on the aerial bombardment dimension of the 78-day operation, the Kosovo mission required a peacekeeping force which numbers 5,500 even today. As the U.S. is adamant about zero boots on the ground, the Kosovo model seems a curious precedent to cite, particularly because its objective was far more than punitive.
The final and most recent precedent the Western coalition may follow is the Libya example, where the U.S. backed the Libyan rebels after the Arab League and UN sanctioned the mission. UN Security Council Resolution 1973 garnered the necessary votes (and abstentions) for NATO to impose a no-fly zone in Libya and then begin bombing Gaddaffi strongholds. It was the first humanitarian intervention justified by the Security Council for the express purpose of preventing an imminent massacre. However, because both Beijing and Moscow now believe they were duped into overthrowing Gaddafi, strikes against Mr. Assad will not receive the Security Council’s blessing and will thereby contravene international law.
In Syria then, there are no good options. The opposition is too unrepresentative to back militarily and Mr. Assad retains support among swaths of Syrian society. The multiplicity of factions within Syria only complicates the situation further, as recent skirmishes between Syrian Kurds and opposition rebels suggest. The U.S. will most likely launch air strikes from destroyers in the Mediterranean and a quick tactical victory will be declared. The question remains, what is the larger strategy here? What happens when Mr. Assad’s regime intensifies its attacks against the rebels? What is to be done with a splintered opposition? Should Russia and Iran get pulled in, are we ready for a regional war?
The guns of August are pointed squarely at Damascus. What happens next, no one can tell.
Omer Aziz is a writer, journalist, and Research Associate at the Centre for International and Defence Policy. He was most recently a Commonwealth and Pitt Scholar of International Relations at Cambridge University. He tweets at @omeraziz12.