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After reported gas attack in Syria, US must weigh intervention in light of history

Bashar al-Assad's alleged chemical weapons attack in Syria today will likely raise the volume of calls for American intervention – but also the stakes of such a move. History suggests US intervention in Syria would be unpredictable at best, disastrous at worst.

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The 1983 bombing of the US Marine compound in Beirut, which killed 241 American servicemen and stands as the deadliest single attack on US troops overseas since World War II, showed just how dangerous such operations can be. Reagan decided to pull US combat forces out of the country the following year, and Lebanon was left to suffer through six more years of civil war. At the end of the conflict, large parts of the country lay under Syrian and Israeli military occupation and the militant Shiite group Hezbollah had become a force to be reckoned with.

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More recently, in a repeat of Reagan’s Lebanon involvement, the Clinton administration elected to intervene in the Somali civil war in the 1990s. As in Lebanon, an intervention designed for humanitarian ends soon evolved into something more as US forces began hunting for warlord Mohammed Farah Aidid. Their campaign would lead to the infamous Black Hawk Down incident in 1993, which left 18 Americans dead along with hundreds of Somalis. Somalia remains a deeply troubled nation – one that has increasingly drawn the attention of commentators who fear the country has become a hotbed for Islamic extremism.

It is impossible to forecast the impact of an American intervention in Syria on the region, but these cases suggest that American intervention in Syria in 2013 would carry serious short- and long-term repercussions for the United States. The Middle East remains in a period of tremendous uncertainty. Egypt is in post-coup turmoil; Lebanon remains fragile and always subject to forces emanating from its larger neighbor, Syria; Israel can be a wild card that has shown a willingness to aggressively defend its interests in the face of any perceived threat.

No one can dispute that what is happening in Syria is a tragedy, and it is easy to sympathize with the argument that the US should use its power to stanch the bleeding. But the historical record of American interventions in the region gives little cause for optimism. In one case after another, the intervention of American forces has exacerbated local conflicts rather than resolved them. If the Obama administration does indeed choose to venture into Syria, it must do so with extreme caution.

Paul Thomas Chamberlin is associate professor of history at the University of Kentucky. He is the author of “The Global Offensive: The United States, the Palestine Liberation Organization, and the Making of the Post-Cold War Order” (Oxford, 2012).  He is currently working on a history of the cold war in the third world titled “The Cold War’s Killing Fields.”


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