Regime Change in Syria: We Should Learn the Lessons of Iraq

"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it" -- George Santayana

Recently, U.S. Senators McCain (R-AZ), Lieberman (I-CT) and Graham (R-SC), together with various pundits, criticized President Obama's commitment to exhausting all diplomatic and political options in Syria before considering military options (for example, arming rebels, providing safe havens, direct U.S. military support). Obama's critics cite our success in Libya as a model for intervening in Syria. However, Iraq -- rather than Libya -- is the better analogy.

The U.S. has less of a strategic interest in Syria than in Libya. Syria isn't a major oil exporter, unlike Libya (site of one of the world's top ten largest proven oil reserves).

Our strategic goal for Syria is its participation as a responsible, stable partner in regional peace. This is particularly important because of Syria's location -- bordering Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon and Israel. Syria is also believed to have one of the world's largest stockpiles of chemical weapons.

America's worst case scenario in Syria would be a civil war, resulting in a failed state. That failed Syrian state could become a regional base for terrorism, whereby chemical weapon stockpiles fall into the hands of Hezbollah, Hamas, al Qaeda or other terrorist groups. The Assad regime is evil; the successor regime could be even worse. As the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff emphasized, we know almost nothing about the Syrian rebels.

In Libya, the Qaddafi regime openly threatened genocide against the opposition. While this remains a risk in Syria, currently violence is at a murderous (but not genocidal) level. Over the last year, approximately 9,000 to 11,000 people died in Syria as a result of the Assad regime's brutality. The death of even one person is a tragedy, and the Assad regime has murdered many times over.

However, to put this in context: people are being killed at the rate of about 40-50 deaths per 100,000 Syrians, per year. This is equivalent to the murder rate in New Orleans or Detroit. Perhaps we should intervene in New Orleans before tackling Syria. And, if a murder rate of 50 people per 100,000 is our point for humanitarian intervention, several other countries would precede Syria on our intervention list. Also similar to our experience in Iraq, intervention presents a real risk that we will be viewed as occupiers, not liberators.

Obama's critics assume (incorrectly) that the Middle East is hoping for U.S. intervention in Syria. In fact, U.S. intervention isn't viewed favorably in the Arab world. For example, Saddam Hussein was a genocidal tyrant, but 65 percent of Iraqis (according to a recent poll) believe conditions were better (or the same) under Saddam, than after liberation by America. Opinion polls in Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Egypt and Jordan show a similarly unfavorable view of our intervention in Iraq. If the U.S. openly intervenes in Syria, Assad could position himself as a Syrian nationalist fighting American occupation.

Which brings us to the challenges of intervention. Libya is a small, homogenous country (population 6.7 million, 97 percent Sunni) and the Libyan military gave clear signs of ambivalence about fighting for the regime. Qaddafi had no international allies likely to support a prolonged civil war.

By contrast, Syria's population (22.5 million) is closer in size to Iraq, and is three times the size of Libya's. Syria's population, again analogous to Iraq, is heterogenous: Sunni Muslim 74 percent, other Muslim (including Alawite, Druze) 16 percent, and Christian (various denominations) 10 percent (source: CIA The World Fact Book). The ruling Assad family is Alawite, and the military appears loyal to the regime (career military, 70 percent Alawite). A significant portion of Syria's population would remain loyal to Assad for fear of living under a Sunni-dominated government.

Intervention (for example, arming Syrian rebels) has a significant probability of igniting a sectarian conflict (as we experienced in Iraq), with differing religious groups engaging in ethnic cleansing to create pure neighborhoods (which happened in Baghdad). The resulting civilian deathtoll would vastly exceed the current carnage.

Unlike Libya, the Assad regime is already receiving outside support from Iran and others (again, similar to Iraq) and an American escalation in Syria would trigger increased Iranian aid to Assad. The Iranian government would welcome trapping the U.S. in a proxy war in Syria, further draining our resources and distracting America from Iran's nuclear ambitions.

We may yet need to intervene militarily in Syria, because of our strategic interests or to prevent genocide. But for the sakes of the American and Syrian people, military intervention should be our last resort -- we should learn the lessons of Iraq.

I would welcome your thoughts on the Syrian situation:

• Do you think Libya or Iraq provides the better analogy for the Syrian situation? • People in Syria are murdered at about the rate people are murdered in some American cities. Does this level of carnage justify American military intervention? • Any other thoughts you would like to share? About the Author: Steven Strauss was founding Managing Director of the Center for Economic Transformation at the New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC). He is an Advanced Leadership Fellow at Harvard University for 2012. He has a Ph.D. in Management from Yale University and over 20 years' private sector work experience. Steven has advised a number of Middle Eastern governments on various strategy projects. You can follow him on twitter at: @Steven_Strauss