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Syria war drumbeat builds, but where is it leading?

Pundits from John Bolton to Nick Kristof are issuing calls to arms. But there's little regard for national interest, or the law of unintended consequences, in the urgings to act now.

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Saddam Hussein was among the most vicious tyrants of the last half of the twentieth century, which is saying something. Bolton and others pushed hard for a war they promised would be quick and cheap and would transform Iraq into a prosperous bastion of democracy that would serve as a beacon for the region. Instead, half a million Iraqis died as the country became a magnet for Al Qaeda-style jihaddis and a sectarian civil war broke out that tens of thousands of US troops could do little to contain. The cost to the US was somewhere north of $1 trillion, not to mention the nearly 5,000 US soldiers who died and countless more who lost their health and limbs.

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Staff writer

Dan Murphy is a staff writer for the Monitor's international desk, focused on the Middle East. Murphy, who has reported from Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt, and more than a dozen other countries, writes and edits Backchannels. The focus? War and international relations, leaning toward things Middle East.

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Today, violence is far down from the peak of the war, but terrorism is a sort of background radiation seeded there by the war and that continues to ooze through the Iraqi nation. Today's sectarian car-bomb attacks against Shiite pilgrims in at least four different Iraqi cities, which killed at least 65 people, are just the latest outrage. The US government estimates that 13,600 people were killed in terrorist attacks in Iraq in 2007. Last year, that number dropped to 3,063, but that was still high enough to place Iraq second, after Afghanistan, in the annual terrorism death toll.

The Iraqi central government remains split between hostile Shiite and Sunni factions. Basic service delivery such as medical care and electricity remains poor. Corruption and torture by the police and politically motivated prosecutions remain commonplace. Between one-half and two-thirds of Iraq's ancient Christian community have been driven out of the country since 2003. And a regime that was a staunch opponent of Iran (the country that Bolton promises will inevitably need to be confronted in the event of war in Syria) has been replaced with one that is friendly to it.

And while the violence unfolding in Syria is heart-wrenching, it isn't currently directed at the US. The Iraq war drew in jihadis from around the Middle East, eager to kill US soldiers in the name of Islam. Hundreds of Sunni jihadis have already entered Syria from the Middle East and South Asia to fight Assad's Alawite dominated regime. The Alawites are an offshoot of Shiite Islam that Sunni jihadis view as apostates, and they're eager to replace the Baath regime with an Islamic caliphate, just like the one they foolishly believed they could impose on Iraq. US boots on the ground and supporters of Al Qaeda have traditionally been a volatile combination.

A US-led effort to oust Assad? If the US made it a priority, there is little doubt that could be accomplished relatively quickly (just as in the case of Saddam Hussein). What comes next? Just as unpredictable and dangerous.

You'd have to have a heart of stone not to feel for the Syrian people or ponder a righteous war to save the country from more pain. But sound decisions aren't made from emotion. And actions from the best of intentions can sometimes lead to outcomes as grim or grimmer than any now currently imagined. 

Follow Dan Murphy on Twitter.

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