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. …