It is understandable that many are drawing comparisons between the announcement that chemical weapons have been used in Syria and the claims of the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq during Saddam’s era. The objective of such comparisons is to link the course that eventually led to foreign intervention in Iraq and the subsequent collapse of the regime there with expectations of a similar scenario playing out in Syria.
There can be no doubt that the issue surrounding the use of chemical weapons has pushed the Syrian crisis into a new stage, which is completely different from all preceding ones. This is because a number of international forces, most prominently the US, had previously announced that they considered the use of chemical weapons a “red line” and warned Bashar Al-Assad’s regime that there would be consequences for transgressing it.
Nobody knows what these consequences will be or how the international community reaction will react if it is confirmed that the regime used nerve gas in its war against the opposition forces. However, all signs indicate that there will be no major changes in the positions of the major international forces, particularly the US, in terms of their cautious approach towards the Syrian crisis. Furthermore, the continuing specter of bloody conflict in Iraq, which has had heavy costs on the US, must also have an impact on the decision-makers in Washington.
Nearly ten years have passed since the Iraq war, which saw a number of different occurrences—perhaps most prominently the US withdrawal, which saw domestic considerations prevail over regional ones. Since that time, the international arena has changed considerably, as have US foreign policy priorities, particularly in light of the Arab Spring. The consequences of this wave of Arab uprisings continue to confuse different international powers and their foreign policies towards the region.
However, if a comparison is to be drawn between the Iraqi and Syrian situations, it must focus on the period following Saddam’s ouster, when there was no strategy for the day after the regime’s collapse. As a result, chaos prevailed on the scene and the government’s institutions collapsed. This cost Iraq dearly.
As for the situation in Syria, it seems that there is no clear vision or plan to address the increasingly complicated crisis in the country; this is a crisis that the regime has successfully given a sectarian dimension. It was made clear in the numerous different turns that the Syrian crisis has taken, namely from peaceful protests to armed uprising after the government used violence to confront unarmed demonstrators. In light of all this, the scene today is closer to a civil war, making it extremely difficult for any external party to intervene to help one side against the other.
The problem is that the longer the crisis goes on, the more complicated the situation becomes; every day brings increased threats of extremism and the chance that one party will resort to using non-conventional arms, including chemical weapons. This is not to mention the impact that the Syrian crisis has had on the surrounding region—particularly in light of the fact that Syria is located in the heart of the region, bordering four other states. We have also heard the regime warn that the fire will spread beyond Syria, in reference to these four states.
Although this crisis has entered the stage where accusations of chemical weapons use are being traded, nobody seems willing to intervene militarily because of the complexity of the crisis. It may also be that the involved parties are seeking to avoid a reoccurrence of an experience like Iraq. It is likely that in the days to come, we will see increasing diplomatic pressure—particularly on Syria’s allies—through a number of different means, including attempts to send UN inspectors. We will also see more arms and logistical support being provided to the Syrian opposition in a bid to strengthen their position against the Assad regime. However, the most important goal is to ensure that there is a clear vision for the day after the regime’s collapse.