The 2003 Iraq war which led to an expensive US and UK military presence in the country is overshadowing the debates taking place in Western capitals about launching military strikes on the Syrian regime in response to accusations of crossing red lines and using chemical weapons.
No one wants a repeat of that experience which aroused public skepticism particularly as the main stated reason for war—that Saddam Hussein’s regime possessed weapons of mass destruction—was proved to be false and nothing more than a pretext for invasion. The war’s main objective was regime change, a worthy aim in light of the Iraqi regime’s practices at the time. However, the true reason behind the war was not legal and thus could not be presented to Western parliaments and the public at the time.
Theoretically, the Assad regime is standing at the same crossroads that Saddam Hussein’s regime reached prior to the 2003 war. In practice however, there is a huge difference between the two scenarios. The awaited war is unpopular with the skeptical Western public as a result of what happened in Iraq, not to mention the war’s considerable cost and its political repercussions which continue to be felt today. Furthermore, due to the delay in intervention, the Syrian crisis has evolved into a civil war, making any external military intervention now akin to wading into a quagmire with no exit strategy in place, particularly in light of the presence of warring international and regional parties on the ground.
If the Iraq war forms the backdrop of the debates currently raging, not to mention the media campaigns conducted by key Western capitals to convince the public of what they intend to do, then we can also say: The Iraq experience changed the rules of the political game. The British Prime Minister sought a mandate from parliament—something that he failed to win—while the US president is following in Cameron’s footsteps by seeking the authorization of the US Congress. This marks a milestone in terms of involving the legislative authority in decisions that are normally the prerogative of the executive authority. This is even more striking when considering that the military action, as announced, is related to limited military strikes over 24 hours or a number of days as punishment for the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons and in order to enforce red lines and does not include boots on the ground.
The main reason for this may lie in the UN Security Council’s failure to issue resolutions against Assad in light of Russia and China’s veto. This, however, in practice will only serve to limit the executive authority’s powers in the future in terms of making rapid military decisions without referring to the legislature. This time, however, the decision to wage or not wage war has fallen to the legislature, something that the lawmakers are certainly happy about.
It is difficult to accurately predict the course that the US Congress discussions will take in the same way it was difficult to predict the results of the British parliament’s vote which ultimately ended with a vote against military intervention. The opposition justified its position in part on the pretext that it was not convinced that limited military strikes will lead to anything or change the situation on the ground.
The same pretext is expected to surface in the US Congress deliberations. In fact, this point has already been raised by some congressmen and senators, whether we are talking about those against the idea of military intervention, or those who want expanded intervention including the imposition of a no-fly zone or Syrian rebels being provided with heavy weapons in order to tip the balance of power on the ground towards the opposition.
Until now, the US administration has adhered to the theory of directing punitive and rapid strikes against the Assad regime without directly engaging in combat to overthrow the Assad clan. However, the scale of the controversy and debates currently raging, as well as Obama resorting to Congress, opens the door for expanding the scope of any military strikes.
Will we truly see military strikes in Syria? If so, will these be limited in scope or will we witness a full-scale war? These are the questions being asked while the US Congress appears to move closer to a decision potentially granting the Obama administration the go-ahead to launch strike against Syria.
Even more important than the prospect of war or military strikes is the presence of a vision for what will happen next, in order not to repeat the mistakes of Iraq. The Iraqi regime was toppled and state institutions were dismantled without any plans for the future being in place. As a result, a vacuum was left only to be filled by chaos and regional powers, such as Iran, in addition to terrorist organizations. Ten years after the US invasion, Iraq is still suffering from explosions and a state of sectarian polarization. A vision for the future should be determined by the people of Syria and sponsored by regional and international powers to provide necessary aid for any forthcoming transition.