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Op-Ed: The Iraq War's Lessons For Syria


And now Syria and Iraq on the Opinion Page this week. As we reconsider the 10 years since the invasion of Iraq, Washington Post editor Jackson Diehl says we should learn from that costly experience as we consider the civil war in Syria. About absent U.S. intervention, he argues, Syria could produce a much worse humanitarian disaster than Iraq. The tragedy of the post-Iraq logic embraced by President Obama, writes Diehl, is that it has ruled out not just George W. Bush-style invasions, but also more modest interventions.

What lessons from Iraq should we apply in Syria? 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Jackson Diehl, deputy editorial page editor for The Washington Post. His op-ed "What the Iraq War Taught Me About Syria" ran in today's editions of the newspaper, and he joins us by phone from his office. Nice to have you back on the program.

JACKSON DIEHL: Oh, it's great to be on, Neal. Thanks.

CONAN: And let me anticipate many callers who will argue the only lesson to be drawn from the debacle in Iraq is to stay out of Syria.

DIEHL: Well - and I think we're seeing an experiment on that just now, because we have stayed out of Syria for the last two years, and the result has been a disaster. It's looking like it could be much greater than Iraq, and including a bigger disaster for the United States.

CONAN: And upwards of 70,000 Syrians killed, but that is still well short of the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who died in the U.S. occupation of Iraq and, of course, the many Americans who died, as well.

DIEHL: That's right, although there was far fewer than 70,000 Iraqis killed in the first two years of the U.S. invasion. And, in fact, there's twice as many people who've been killed in Syria in the last two years than were killed in the first two years after the U.S. invasion of Iraq. And if the numbers that the U.N. is keeping are - turn out to be accurate, there will be 50 percent more refugees from Syria by the end of this year than there were in the total time after the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

CONAN: But there's no - how could we know whether it's going to last another eight years?

DIEHL: Well, there's nobody stopping it. We know that. Whereas the U.S. intervention eventually stopped the civil war in Iraq, no one is stopping the civil war in Syria, and there's no end to it in sight.

CONAN: So the U.S. buffer, as you say, tamped down what would have been a civil war inside Iraq.

DIEHL: Well, there was a civil war inside Iraq, and it was a civil war that's very similar to the civil war that's going on Syria, a sectarian war, a war in which other countries were intervening. The United States managed to stop the war in Iraq far short of where it might have gone. No one is stopping it in Syria.

CONAN: And you say the countries are similar in that Iraq was ruled by a Sunni minority. And, eventually, once the strongman was removed, that the Shias, the majority, were going to restore - try to reestablish their rights. And similarly in Syria, where it is, in this case, the Alawites who are the minority, who are running the country or parts of it now, and the majority Sunnis who are agitating for more representation.

DIEHL: That's right. The two countries are really similar. They were both drawn on a map in 1916 by the British and French diplomats. Neither one is really a natural country. They're both made up of an amalgam of ethic and religious groups that are often hostile to each other, and the only thing that's held them together has been dictatorships. And so it was kind of inevitable, in my view, that once the dictatorships decline, you were going to have this explosion of competition among these groups. And the difference is, in Syria, it's turning out to be far more bloody and dangerous than it was in Iraq.

CONAN: Many would argue it was the U.S. presence that exacerbated tensions inside Iraq, and would do the same in Syria.

DIEHL: Well, that could be, although the tensions - the fighting in Syria has broken out and has gotten very ferocious without any intervention by the United States. So we can hardly be blamed for what is happening there. And one difference, too, is that in both countries, you have al-Qaida. After the United States came into Iraq, al-Qaida appeared and waged a substantial offensive for many years, was largely defeated by the United States by the time we withdrew.

CONAN: And by the Sunni tribal sheiks.

DIEHL: And by the Sunni tribal leaders. Now you have an al-Qaida in Syria, a very substantial group that seems to be growing by leaps and bounds and has no check on it. No one is fighting them, other than the government.

CONAN: Let's see if we cans get some callers in on the conversation. Our guest is Jackson Diehl of the Washington Post. 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. What lessons from Iraq should the United States apply to the situation in Syria? We'll start with Danny, Danny on the line with us from Fort Worth.

DANNY: Ah, yes. My comment basically was just that, you know, it's a paining situation that the country's put in. It seems like no matter, you know, which way you act, whether you send troops in or whether you don't, the result seems to be the same. And I think that if you want to achieve, you know, humanitarian issue, you know, either way, you know, it's the - the situation's the same. You just want to do what you're supposed to do and what's right. And, you know, if it that means putting troops on the ground, fine. If not, you know, don't, but the results are still going to be the same. People are still going to die, you know.

CONAN: Don't you think that the idea of intervening in a humanitarian situation is that if you do put troops on the ground, that you will reduce the number killed?

DANNY: Right. And that - you would think that, but Iraq taught us, you know, we send troops there, and people still die. And people are still going to die in Syria no matter what we do, so we might as well act in the best interests of the people and just try to limit, you know, the least amount of deaths as we can.

CONAN: All right. Danny, thanks very much for the phone call. So, Jackson Diehl, damned if you do, damned if you don't.

DIEHL: Well, that's true, and that's sort of the curse of the United States, to be the world's foremost power. And when crisis like these happen in the Middle East or elsewhere, people tend to look at the United States and blame us if things go wrong. If they go right, we don't get much credit. But by the way, I would say no one is advocating in this case - I don't know anyone who's advocating that we put troops on the ground in Syria. I think what the debate in here - going on here in Washington is about, should there be some other kind of intervention by the United States like the interventions we had in the Balkans that could perhaps help to put a stop to the bloodshed?

CONAN: And like the intervention in Libya where it was airpower, again, the same thing in the Balkans.

DIEHL: That's right. Yeah.

CONAN: You, in fact, said in your piece, you laid 60,000 Syrian deaths at the door of the Obama administration, said it could have easily prevented those by active air intervention much earlier.

DIEHL: I think that's right. I think if there had been an intervention a year and a half ago at the time that Obama was saying that Assad had to go, it's quite possible that the regime could've crumbled. If we'd a created a no-fly zone, if we'd given protection to the people who are rebelling against the regime, I think it could've saved a lot of lives and also, I think, could've prevented al-Qaida from gaining the very significant foothold than they'll have in Syria. Because 18 months ago, there was no al-Qaida in Syria.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get another caller in on the conversation. Let's go to David. David's on the line with us from Philadelphia.

DAVID: Hi. Thank you. I think that there's a false choice being presented of the U.S. intervening or not intervening. And what's really the flaw is that the United States has consistently refused to allow the U.N. to haunch in as it was conceived by insisting that we maintain our veto in the Security Council. And so it becomes a dysfunctional organization, whereas it should've been the U.N. that would deal with these kinds of things. It needs a major reform, and the U.S. is the one that needs to step up and say: That's what we're going to do. But instead, we have people in the U.S. who say we don't want our troops under U.N. command. Well, if you don't accept the U.N.'s role, then you're stuck with this duality, and it's not a thing the U.S. should be doing.

CONAN: U.S. has had its troops under U.N. command, but under the command of U.S. generals in places like Korea and elsewhere, David. But the Security Council, that's five permanent members. The United States, not the only one, and it's been Russia and China who've been blocking action at the United Nations.

DAVID: No, but we don't allow them to - we haven't pushed for eliminating that kind of a Security Council veto control, because we want it, too. We would have to take the leadership in saying that it has to become a more functional organization.

CONAN: Well, Jackson Diehl, the - no one would accuse the United Nations of being functional in this situation. Might that kind of reform be helpful?

DIEHL: It might be. I think to its credit, the Obama administration really has tried to use the U.N. in - to deal with Syria. They very sincerely have worked with it, and they've gone back to the Russians, who are the ones who have been blocking action again and again, in my view, somewhat a little naively after a while, asking them over and over again to remove their veto so that the U.N. can take some action. You know, I think the United States has supported Security Council reform. We're in favor of adding members such as Brazil and Japan and so forth, but again, we run up against other countries who do not want to make those changes.

CONAN: David, thanks very much. Let's go next to Dennis, Dennis with us from Syracuse.

DENNIS: Good afternoon. Thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

DENNIS: I think that throughout the Middle East, our policies are really dictated by Saudi Arabia. We don't talk about it. We don't - we're not hearing about their interests. We go to war in Iraq because they have an oil interest. They had weapons capacity. They were a threat to Saudi Arabia. No such threat exists with regard to Syria, so we sit on the sidelines.

CONAN: Dennis, I hesitate to correct you, but the Saudi's pretty upset that we installed a Shia leadership in Iraq, and they're, of course, Sunni nation. And, indeed, they are intervening in Syria. Is that not correct, Jackson Diehl?

DIEHL: Yeah, they are. I think they're, in fact, they're tearing their hair out that they can't get us to do more in Syria. They are probably the biggest supplier - along with Qatar - of weapons to the opposition in Syria. They've been flying in - according to a recent report in The New York Times - planeloads of weapons from Croatia to supply the rebels. And their main problem with us right now is that we're not helping enough.

DENNIS: Oh, I really appreciate the correction.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Dennis. We're talking with Jackson Diehl of The Washington Post. His piece, "What the Iraq War Taught Me about Syria" ran in that newspaper earlier today. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

And as you consider the situation in Iraq, you say, outside nations were not essentially drawn in. Obviously, Iran played a heavy role in some of the militia groups and arming them and in, well, political guidance, if you will.

DIEHL: Well, they did. Iran was probably the biggest outside intervener in Iraq. But they're even bigger in Syria. They are flying in planeloads of weapons on a weekly basis. They have seemed to have sent their own militiamen in there to fight, which is something they certainly didn't do in Iraq. And I think it's because the Iranians, you know, they were somewhat deterred by us in Iraq. They knew they could only push so hard while we had our troops there in Syria. There's no one to push back. So they're completely unconstrained in their support for the government.

CONAN: And, of course, Syria's other neighbors are being drawn in, as well.

DIEHL: Yeah. The Turks are siding with the opposition. They are probably helping also to supply them with weapons. Iraq has started to get involved. On both sides, you have al-Qaida fighters and Sunni fighters from Iraq who are traveling to Syria to fight on the side of the opposition. And the Iraqi government, the Shiite Iraqi government is increasingly starting to help the Syrian government. And Jordan now is also allowing its space to be used for training for opposition fighters.

And Lebanon, lastly, Hezbollah militia has reportedly been sending its fighters into Syria to fight on the side of the government, whereas Sunnis from - some Sunnis from Lebanon have been going there to fight on the side of the opposition. So, slowly but surely, the whole region is getting sucked into this war.

CONAN: Let's get Tom on the line, Tom with us from Des Moines.

TOM CALLER: Yes. I wanted to echo Jackson Diehl's criticism of the Obama administration. I think this could have really saved a lot of lives if he had gotten involved with a no-fly zone a year and a half ago. And I'd like to ask him how sophisticated he thinks the Syrian Air Force is, which we would have to deal with if we had a no-fly zone. Would it be something that would be easily taken out? Would the Russians support it? Would - how easy would it be to enforce a no-fly zone?

DIEHL: Well, you get a good debate on that, and that's a good question. Some people at the Pentagon point to the fact that Syria has a relatively sophisticated air defense system, with advanced anti-aircraft missiles that have been supplied by Russia. And so they say that if we tried to set up a no-fly zone, we'd first have a very complicated operation to take out this system. But you can get a debate on that. I mean, people point to the fact that Israel has twice carried out air raids inside Syria in the last several years, and the Syrians never saw them, were never even aware that the Israeli planes were there until they had already attacked.

CONAN: And the debate would be a raid is very different from, well, 24-hour air dominance.

DIEHL: Well, that's true. And I think that's why some people, when they talk about a no-fly zone, make the case that we wouldn't necessarily have to do it with planes. We could it with Patriot missiles, some of which are already stationed in Turkey. If we set up anti-aircraft batteries in the north of the country and simply attacked any Syrian plane that approached, that might serve the same purpose without having to take out that whole air defense system.

CONAN: It might invite an attack on Turkey, and then get NATO involved.

DIEHL: Well, Turkey's already in that sort of danger, which is why NATO has already Patriot missile batteries inside of Turkey to defend it against any possible Syrian attack, which I think, you know, the government in Damascus still being relatively rational, will hold back from attacking a NATO country.

CONAN: Tom, thanks very much. And then we get to the question of, well, rationality and weapons of mass destruction. Biological and chemical weapons - well, turned out they were not in Iraq. They are in Syria.

DIEHL: They are, indeed. And we keep seeing dangerous indications that the regime is moving towards using them. They've moved them around some. They've positioned them in places where they might be used. And then there's the possibility that they will fall into the hands of one of the opposing parties if the regime collapses. And the most dangerous thing, of course, is they would fall into the hands of this new al-Qaida organization that's operating in Syria.

CONAN: And the Obama administration has said there is a red line: Use of chemical weapons would prompt a game-changer, is what I think the phrase is.

DIEHL: Right. But they haven't - the president hasn't spelled out what he means by that. It's not really clear whether that means there would be U.S. military intervention, or whether he would simply refer the Assad regime to the International Criminal Court, or what action would be taken. And it's not - also not clear that the United States would in a position to react very quickly if weapons were suddenly used.

CONAN: Israel would.

DIEHL: Israel would be in a position to act, but not necessarily on the ground. The Israelis could conduct their actions, but they're not going to put their own troops into Syria. So it's dangerous situation. And I think Israel recently, last week, apologized to Turkey. It's something that the Turks had wanted for two years, apologized them for a raid on a ferry two years ago that had almost ruptured relations between Israel and Turkey. And a lot of people think that's because Israel and Turkey both realized that they might have to collaborate on this chemical weapons problem sometime soon.

CONAN: Jackson Diehl, thanks, as always, for your time.

DIEHL: Oh, my pleasure.

CONAN: Jackson Diehl, deputy editorial page editor for The Washington Post. His piece ran in the newspaper there this morning. Tomorrow, we'll take a look at the so-called brass ceiling and the number of women now in top law enforcement jobs around the country, even here in Washington, D.C. This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.