There are a lot of Important Thought Pieces being bandied about around the idea that “Syria is just like X,” where “X” is some other overseas episode in which America either did or didn’t entangle itself. Tommy “Suck. On. This.” Friedman, Wielder of the Mighty Mustache of Understanding, attempted the Grand Unified Theory of All Arab War yesterday, with the pithily titled “Same War, Different Country,” the thesis of which can be boiled down to the idea that them damn Arabs just can’t stop killing each other, so what can you, the Wise and Knowing White Man, do? Best just to let them hack away at each other.
Friedman aside, there have been a lot of strained analogies that people are attempting to draw about what Syria looks like, or might look like, and I’m here to poke holes in all of the ones I’ve seen. This is not to say that there aren’t bits and pieces of similarities between the situation in Syria and some of these other cases, but the comparisons just don’t get you very far.
I am comparing the circumstances of each case itself. I am deliberately not talking about the similarities or differences in the domestic US political debates over these events, because for one thing we really should stop acting like these things are All About Us, and for another, I have no interest in wading through the “RACIST HIPPIES ARE STABBING PRESIDENT OBAMA IN THE BACK” vs. “EVIL CONQUEROR OBAMA THE MERCILESS IS HELL-BENT ON DESTROYING THE PLANET” debate. There are legitimate reasons to oppose intervening in Syria, and President Obama, the supposed Mad Bomber, is so hell-bent on making this intervention as tiny as it can be that what he’s proposing seems unlikely to accomplish anything. OK? Now let’s get on with explaining why all your analogies suck.
Syria is just like Iraq: Yeah, no. This is the favorite analogy of folks who are opposed to intervention, and while I have great misgivings about intervening (mostly over the fact that it doesn’t seem like the Obama foreign policy team knows why it wants to intervene or what it plans to accomplish by intervening, but that’s for another post), this is a really bad analogy. Superficially, OK, they’re both Arab countries with sectarian divisions that could be exacerbated by western intervention, where sloppy intervention could lead to massive civilian casualties and a power vacuum that invites terrorist groups in and risks destabilizing the region. The difference, though subtle, is the fact that Syria already is all of those things, mostly because of the massive civil war that has been raging there for over two years. Sectarian divisions exacerbated? Check. Massive civilian casualties? Check. Power vacuum inviting terrorist groups in? Check and check. Risk of regional destabilization? Check, check, and check. Contrast this with Iraq, where Saddam Hussein was undoubtedly an awful dictator like Assad, but there was no organized opposition to him, let alone an open civil war, and the only thing approaching the “government in exile” that the Syrian National Council represents was a liar and con artist wanted in Jordan for embezzlement. Oh, and whereas in Iraq we were chasing theoretical (and, as it turns out, non-existent) WMD, in Syria we know that chemical weapons have been used (though the case for Assad having been the one who used them is not airtight). Any Syrian intervention will have been dictated by events, whereas the decision to invade Iraq was made regardless of events and in fulfillment of a five-year long effort to drum up political support for an American invasion.
More fun with crappy analogies after the jump.
Syria is just like Afghanistan: I really don’t understand this one, and I don’t remember hearing it before President Obama decided yesterday to assure us that any action in Syria won’t be “another Afghanistan.” Well, yeah; nobody in Syria is responsible for attacking the United States and there’s no “national defense” justification for American action in or against Syria. Afghanistan is a completely different kind of society than Syria; it’s a collection of rural/pastoral fiefdoms outside of Kabul, arguably ungovernable by a single central authority, whereas Syria is urbanized to a much greater degree, and the control of large cities like Aleppo, Damascus, and Hama brings with it a degree of control over their surrounding hinterlands. I don’t know how these two cases compare in any way beyond “Muslim,” although the rise of the Taliban to power may be an instructive example of what happens when a dictator is removed from power in an Islamic country without a strong secular alternative government ready to take his place. I guess the president was trying to say that whatever we might do in Syria won’t go on for an entire decade plus, in which case, uh, woo-hoo? There’s also the current status of Afghanistan to consider, since it might make us hope that the two situations don’t turn out to be anything like one another. If Syria winds up looking like Afghanistan, where the “president” is more like the mayor of Kabul and the rest of the country is largely ungoverned except by local warlords, it would be horrifying for regional stability.
Syria would be just like Libya: This is a popular analogy for backers of the proposed campaign, because Libya seems like a “successful” example of western intervention into a civil war in an Arab country–the “good guys” won and it didn’t cost much in terms of western men or materiel. There are several reasons why this analogy fails. At the risk of being pedantic, Syria ain’t Libya. The ethnic and sectarian layers to Syria’s revolution simply didn’t exist in Libya, where the majority of the population is Sunni Arab and elements of its largest minority, the Amazigh (Berbers), fought on both sides. Muammar Gaddafi had isolated himself both internally and externally in ways that Assad has not; Assad has strong allies in Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah (it’s not clear he’d have survived the rebel push last year without Hezbollah’s support), and he still has substantial internal support from Alawites, Christians, Kurds, and even Sunni Arabs, many of whom are still serving in the Syrian army (mostly secular-minded Sunnis who are concerned about the possibility of a fundamentalist takeover if Assad is toppled). Gaddafi, having come to power by military coup himself, was always afraid of falling to the same thing and deliberately kept his army weak while building up local militias, so he wound up unable to really defend himself when those local militias turned on him. Libya’s military infrastructure was lousy, its air defenses easily defeated, and NATO bombing was able to substantially improve the rebellion’s chances by eliminating Libya’s air power and then targeting her heavy armor. Syria has extensive air defenses and a very large, well-equipped military, and the Obama administration has already restricted its aims so much that it’s not even clear we’d be attempting to change the balance of power in the civil war. Finally, and this is more in the “hopefully they’re not alike” category, Libya is a mess right now, as the government continues to lose control to a collection of local militias and fundamentalist groups. Libya is on the periphery of the Arab World, both geographically and because it’s been marginalized by Gaddafi’s lunacy, but (similarly to Afghanistan) if an American or allied campaign leaves Syria in the shape that Libya is in right now, it could be catastrophic for the region.
Syria would be just like Kosovo: Another popular analogy for supporters, since here’s a western intervention that prevented a genocide and saved lives while not really costing all that much in western blood or treasure. But Syria isn’t a genocide, it’s a civil war, and to suggest otherwise really cheapens the idea of genocide. The war is what’s killing people, and the war is what has caused the appalling refugee crisis that threatens Syria and the countries around it. We’re supposedly not interested in ending the war, so it’s not clear how we’d be doing anything to stop the death and displacement that it’s caused. Even if we decided to act in a way that resulted in Assad being toppled, given the amount of infighting that’s gone on between various rebel groups it’s likely that the civil war would continue even though its fundamental nature would change. The risk of true genocide, the kind of ethnic cleansing we saw in Bosnia and Kosovo, actually goes up if the rebels win and Islamic fundamentalists seize power, at which point the risk to Syria’s Alawite, Christian, and Kurdish populations could be very dire. Also, and it’s starting to sound like a broken record at this point, but Kosovo is a failed state, essentially run by drug traffickers who, by the way, ran their own ethnic cleansing campaign on the non-Albanians living in Kosovo just as soon as NATO stopped the Serbs and their ethnic cleansing campaign against the Albanians. Turn Syria into Kosovo and you’re going to wind up with a full-fledged disaster in the Middle East.
Syria would be just like Bosnia: Like Kosovo, NATO’s intervention in Bosnia saved lives and was cheap. Great model, right? Well, not really; first of all, what really stopped the violence in Bosnia was the fact that, by the time NATO intervened, the country had been already been partitioned into ethnically pure zones so there weren’t many mixed or disputed areas left over which to fight. Second, again, it’s not clear that the Obama team is contemplating anything like the sustained air campaign that NATO ran against the Serbs in Bosnia. Third, broken record again, but Bosnia is a disaster too, completely partitioned into its Serb and Bosniak-Croat zones and incapable of developing because of that strict division. Is the plan to partition Syria? Because it would require more than just two zones, and it would be really, really inadvisable from a world peace standpoint. Also too, Bosnia (and Kosovo while we’re at it) had official international support (NATO rather than the UN, but still) behind it, which does matter in terms of the legitimacy of the campaign
Syria could be just like Rwanda: I’ve started seeing this one being bandied about as an example of what Syria could turn out to be without the noble intervention of American military might. “Remember how we didn’t intervene in Rwanda, and how much we all regretted it?” the argument goes. In fact I do remember Rwanda pretty well, I think. I remember how it was a real, according to Hoyle genocide, not a civil war with complicated internal and regional considerations. I remember that Rwanda was a tiny, impoverished African nation, whose poorly equipped Hutu mobs were nothing like Assad’s well-trained, well-equipped, professional army and battle-hardened militias. I also remember how, when the West (France, in this case) finally did intervene in Rwanda, it was after the situation had gone from “genocidal massacre” to “actual civil war” when the Tutsis started counterattacking, and I remember how the French intervened and wound up protecting the goddamn genocidaire Hutus and enabling them to regroup and continue killing Tutsis. So, yes, I remember how Rwanda went, and it doesn’t speak highly of the West’s ability to intervene in even a simple, relatively black-and-white conflict without getting the whole thing wrong. Syria, sadly, is anything but black-and-white.
So, while you can find some limited analogues to Syria in these other cases, can we all agree that Syria is like Syria, and not much like anything else? Maybe we can have a better debate about this particular situation if we stop trying to compare it to other things that have only limited similarities to it.