Drumbeat on Syria echoes calls for war on Iraq in 2003

Chorus calling for action against Assad has eerie echo of the lead-up to invasion of Iraq, and may be just as hard to stop

PUBLISHED : Friday, 30 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 30 August, 2013, 4:12am

A grim-faced secretary of state reading a bill of charges against a rogue Arab leader. The White House promising intelligence that will provide proof about weapons of mass destruction. Frenetic efforts to piece together a coalition of the willing. Breathless news reports about imminent bombing raids.

The days since the deadly chemical weapons attack last week in Syria carry an eerie echo of the tense days leading up to the American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Some veterans of that period are expressing qualms that this time, too, the war drums are beating too loudly.

"There's some risk," said Thomas Fingar, a fellow at Stanford University's Institute for International Studies. "Political pressure is a factor. It appears to me that the situation has crossed a tipping point." In short, he said, the case for military action has moved so rapidly that it has become difficult for those counselling restraint.

Fingar has first-hand experience. He was the head of the State Department's intelligence bureau, which dissented from the Bush administration's intelligence reports on Saddam Hussein's nuclear weapons programme. Neither properly scrutinised nor challenged, that faulty intelligence paved the road to war a decade ago.

In Syria's case, there is little doubt that chemical weapons were used outside Damascus on August 21. But Fingar and other experts predicted it would be hard, if not impossible, for the administration to produce definitive evidence that President Bashar al-Assad ordered it.

There were other possible situations, analysts said, like a rogue military commander who went beyond his orders, or a military unit that intended a smaller attack, but miscalculated. "The Syrian case involves the empirical issue of whether chemical weapons were used and an analytical judgment about who used them," Fingar said. "It's very different than Iraq."

There are other differences, of course. The most obvious is that President Barack Obama is a reluctant warrior, while his predecessor, George W. Bush, was anything but. The Obama administration has so far sketched out a war plan that is most remarkable for how narrowly it is drawn.

It is most likely to take the form of one or two days of cruise missile strikes from ships in the eastern Mediterranean, not a sustained air campaign, let alone the imposition of a no-fly zone that would require many aircraft over many weeks or months. The administration's goal is not to oust Assad, but merely to punish the government for using poison gas on its own population and to try to stop it happening again.

Nor would a strike be aimed at altering the course of Syria's two-year-old civil war. White House officials said Obama remained convinced that intervening would cause more problems in the region than it would solve.

Unlike Iraq in 2003, the triggering event in Syria a decade later is not a shaky argument that the government possesses weapons of mass destruction, but a rocket assault that left hundreds of victims convulsing and gasping for breath, glassy-eyed and foaming at the mouth - all classic symptoms of a reaction to poison gas. Video of the carnage was posted on YouTube, while the aid group Medecins sans Frontieres issued a report based on first-hand accounts from medics.

"These all strongly indicate that everything these images are already screaming at us is real, that chemical weapons were used in Syria," US Secretary of State John Kerry said on Monday.

Kerry did not show any of those pictures, unlike his predecessor Colin Powell, who in February 2003 displayed satellite photos, played intercepts of conversations between Iraqi officials, and brandished a vial of white powder in his futile effort to persuade the UN Security Council to coalesce behind the invasion.

Such an elaborate campaign is not necessary in this case, administration officials argued, because the evidence is overwhelming and the scope of the response is more limited.

Still, the White House faces a US public considerably more sceptical about intervention in Syria than it was about Iraq. The feverish atmosphere of the years after the September 11 attacks has given way to a country exhausted after more than a decade of war.