Syrian opposition groups claimed this morning that government forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad have carried out a "poisonous gas" attack near the capital Damascus that has left hundreds dead. This latest escalation in Syria's civil war will likely raise the volume of calls for American intervention – but also the stakes of such a move.
Any drift toward intervention in Syria should give Americans pause. Simply put, the track record of US interventions in the Middle East and greater Muslim world is not good. This history suggests US intervention in Syria would be unpredictable at best, disastrous at worst.
Late last month, the Pentagon released a list of possible operations it could launch if ordered to intervene in the civil war in Syria. These include plans to train and arm resistance groups, conduct air strikes, enforce a no-fly zone, track down chemical weapons, and/or establish buffer zones in Syria. On the same day, the House Intelligence Committee authorized the White House to provide training and aid to Syrian rebels.
As they weigh options in Syria, lawmakers should recall Jimmy Carter’s and Ronald Reagan’s decision to arm the Afghan Mujahideen in their war against the Soviet Union in the 1980s – the most obvious historical parallel to the developing situation in Syria. In its largest covert operation of the cold war, the CIA worked with Saudi and Pakistani intelligence services to arm and train thousands of Islamic fighters from Afghanistan and the Middle East as part of a secret war against the Soviet Union.
The United States and its allies succeeded in turning Afghanistan into a bloody quagmire – the so-called Soviet Vietnam. And the long-term repercussions were sobering: an estimated 2 million killed, Afghanistan destabilized, and an energized jihadist movement that would go global in the coming decades and harbor the militants who attacked the US on September 11, 2001.
The case of Lebanon – Syria’s close neighbor – is also worth remembering. The Reagan administration designed its intervention in the Lebanese Civil War in 1982 with humanitarian interests in mind, but once US forces were on the ground, they discovered a far more complicated situation. Tasked with restoring the power of the Lebanese government, American troops threw their support behind Christian forces in the civil war. US peacekeepers were then pulled into the conflict.
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.
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.”