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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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A survivor from what Syrian opposition activists say is a gas attack rests inside a mosque in the Duma neighbourhood of Damascus Aug 21. Op-ed contributor Paul Thomas Chamberlin writes: '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.'

Bassam Khabieh/Reuters

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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.

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