‘Tonkinitis’ in Iraq

The four horsemen of intervention in the Syria conflict are gathering steam. Here’s why they’re wrong.


In June 1967, Egypt closed the Straits of Tiran to Israeli vessels, blockading Israel’s access to Asia and Africa. Knowing that this meant imminent war, the Lyndon Johnson administration asked Congress to support a multinational flotilla to break the blockade. But Congress wasn’t buying. Secretary of State Dean Rusk explained congressional reluctance with one word: "Tonkinitis." Having been lured into a raging land war in Asia because of one maritime confrontation, Congress was not going to be lured into a Middle East war because of another, especially one not of their making.

It could be argued that an analogous condition is evident in current U.S. policy deliberations. But to be clear, if the United States is suffering from a latter day Tonkinitis, driven by America’s unsuccessful venture in Iraq, that is not a bad thing.  At this stage, the Obama administration is wise to resist calls for engaging more directly and intensively in Syria’s civil war or Iraq.

The use of the comparative on Syria here is essential, because the United States already is engaged in the Syrian conflict. Washington took the Syrian opposition’s side immediately, mobilized international support in the form of the Friends of Syria, imposed the harshest possible economic sanctions on the Bashar al-Assad regime, supplied non-lethal assistance and funding for the political opposition beginning in 2011, reportedly facilitated large shipments of weapons on behalf of Saudi Arabia in 2012, began to supply arms covertly in 2013, according to published reports, to the armed wing of the rebellion, and emerged early on as the world’s largest source of humanitarian aid by a very wide margin. There should be no question about whose side the United States is on, or whether Washington should get involved. It already is.

Although Washington’s preferences regarding Syria are clear, it is at least an open question whether it is even possible to secure those preferences. This would a thorny issue no matter what, but in this instance the deliberative process is burdened by an anterior problem: The inability of proponents of more muscular intervention to explain how American strategic interests in Syria would justify the costs and risks of escalation. These voices have become increasingly — and rightly — anguished as the toll in Syrian lives has risen. Yet, what they really have been arguing for is America’s "responsibility to protect" vulnerable noncombatants against violent assault. The outrage is real. It is thought that 200,000 people have perished. With 6.5 million people displaced within Syria and nearly 3 million refugees in neighboring countries, the scale of the disaster is nearly incomprehensible. As the horror has unfolded, U.S. humanitarian assistance has grown. Thus far, U.S. spending — about $1.7 billion — dwarfs donations by the EU, Russia, China, and the Gulf states. And that number will certainly increase further in the coming years.

There is a vital need to articulate the link between means — the direct and indirect costs of intervention and our available resources — and ends — our strategic stake in Syria. It has been the instinct of successive administrations — at least since the Balkan wars of the 1990s — to require clear strategic interests and objectives for military intervention, or actions that could put the nation on a path to it. (The George W. Bush administration was, concededly, a large exception.) Thus, proponents of intervention in Syria have cast their arguments in terms of four overlapping Considerations: spillover; reputation; rollback of Iran; and the jihadist challenge. These factors, they argue, make intervention imperative.


The first category concerns spillover. The conflict, it is argued, will inevitably overflow Syria’s already blurred borders to destabilize America’s friends and important regional actors in which the United States has invested heavily. Victims will include Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Israel, and Iraq. Although the precise process of destabilization is rarely spelled out, in part because the process can often proceed in unpredictable ways, the scenarios generally involve large refugee flows taxing the capacities of these states while masking the movement of terrorists aiming to bring down their governments, which have been weakened economically and jeopardized politically by the ongoing crisis.

Judging from its response thus far, the United States seems to assess that states bordering Syria will be able to cope with these perils, or, as in Iraq, have recourse to both U.S. and Iranian advisors, material assistance, intelligence data and, if rumors are accurate, small detachments of Iranian Quds force personnel. Although the Iraqi conscripts in the north clearly panicked, the sheer size of Iraq’s army, its superior firepower, the fielding of elite formations, and the presence of outside powers with a strong interest in the stability of Iraq are significant assets to be mobilized against Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS).  

For Israel, whose prime minister recently praised the administration’s approach to the crisis, the war has been an opportunity to strike important targets within Syria without fear of blowback. Chaos in Syria raises the possibility of jihadist infiltration or cross-border fire, but it also renders the Syrian state ineffective as a strategic adversary for years to come. Moreover, it has forced Hezbollah to defend two fronts simultaneously, presumably to Israel’s advantage. And Israel has quietly suspended its distribution of gas masks to the public because the only plausible large-scale chemical weapons threat will be removed by the Russian-brokered deal — assuming it’s fully implemented — to dismantle the Assad regime’s chemical arsenal.

Ankara has faced an influx of refugees, several cross-border artillery strikes that killed five Turkish civilians and the loss of an aircraft to Syrian missile defenses, but overall has contained the challenges posed by the Syrian civil war to its security. At the same time, Western observers have tagged the Turkish intelligence service as responsible for the relatively unfettered access to Syria that jihadists have thus far enjoyed. Indeed, Ankara has been pursuing its own goals in Syria, at times seemingly at odds with American objectives. As for more overt forms of intervention, Turkish voters have made clear that they are not interested. It’s difficult to cast Turkey as vulnerable in this context, especially given NATO’s rapid response to Turkey’s request for the deployment of Patriot air defense batteries over Christmas of 2012; there are now six batteries — Dutch, German, and American — securing Turkish airspace.

In Jordan, voter perceptions of chaos to the North combined with the suppression of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt have dampened enthusiasm for vocal protest over the King’s governing style. With over a billion dollars in American aid, subventions from Gulf States and a substantial International Monetary Fund loan, Jordan can probably manage the large numbers of refugees washing over its border with Syria and its armed forces will confront ISIS intruders from Iraq.

Lebanon meanwhile is holding its own; on a recent visit to Beirut I heard both Lebanese officials and foreign observers agree that the influx of refugees, about 1 million and still growing, would not tip Lebanon’s intercommunal political balance toward civil war. This is a remarkable accomplishment for a country with a population of 4.25 million and without a functional or permanent government. Jihadist assassination attempts on the interior minister and speaker of parliament unquestionably show that Lebanon is a target for destabilization. However, its compact geography, Sunni antipathy to radicals, Hezbollah’s self-interest, and the pervasiveness of the security service make it a hard target. In any case, the United States disavowed a vital interest in Lebanon since 1984, when the Reagan administration decided to withdraw American troops following devastating attacks against the U.S. embassy and Marine barracks in Beirut.  Intervention in Syria to relieve pressure on Lebanon would therefore be unlikely.

So the pivotal issue isn’t spillover, despite the costs it so clearly imposes. And even in the case of Iraq, the battles that just erupted there are part of Sunni insurgency that had been brewing long before the Syrian revolt. The issue, rather, is spill-in, as Iran, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, the UAE, the Kurds, and Kuwait all try to manipulate the Syrian civil war to advance their perceived interests.

One phenomenon contributing to spill-in is the increasing independence from Washington of wealthy Gulf States that have acquired the self-confidence and clout (and cash) to press their own, frequently competing, foreign policy agendas. This is a trend that Washington — committed to the security of these countries, reliant on their oil, and wary of Iran — has tried to counter, but its leverage is not unlimited. Russia, incensed by the war against Libya, is convinced that Assad is the best firebreak available against jihadism and is determined to impede what it sees as American self-aggrandizement is probably beyond reach at this point; Iran’s strategic stake in the Assad regime’s survival should be self-evident.


A second argument for intervention is the need to protect America’s reputation. For proponents of this view, the U.S. failure to intervene in Syria has already had a profound worldwide effect on American credibility — among other allegations — and it supposedly encouraged Russia’s seizure of Crimea and the covert destabilization of eastern Ukraine.

This allegation is farfetched. Russia clearly understood that the disparity between American and NATO interests in preserving the territorial integrity of post-Soviet Ukraine and Moscow’s interest in controlling Crimea and the port of Sevastopol.  The disparity of interests was so large as to guarantee that the West would not react militarily to Russia’s ill-advised takeover of the peninsula. Russia is paying and will continue to pay a price for these actions, but NATO is strengthened, not weakened, by Russia’s thuggish behavior. There is, of course, considerable damage to international legality and certainly to Ukraine’s governance and sovereignty. But the notion that it is all part of a general deterioration of American will and reputation is a figment of the hawkish imagination. 

More broadly, the notion that adversaries in a crisis assess each other’s resolve on the basis of what they did or didn’t do last year is not all that compelling. In a crisis, adversaries weigh each other’s stake in the outcome and capacity to defend it as the current dispute is playing out. Track record is not a significant factor. Moreover, it isn’t clear how a country’s reputation can suffer if it doesn’t intervene where it doesn’t claim to have a vital interest. A sense of proportion when weighing vital interests is more often admired than ridiculed. Credibility suffers most when countries intervene where vital interests are not threatened and their adversary’s stake is far greater than their own.


By not striking the regime at the outset of the civil war, so the argument goes, the United States foreclosed a golden opportunity to knock the pins out from under Iran’s only sovereign ally in the Arab world and cut off Hezbollah from Tehran’s life support. This would unquestionably be a desirable thing. It would remove Iran from Israel’s northern border and further isolate Tehran.

Yet precisely because it would so seriously damage Iran’s interests, the fight would necessarily escalate as the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps fought back. Meanwhile, American efforts to dominate the escalation would implicate Washington more and more deeply in the fate of Syria without guaranteeing any sort of favorable resolution of the underlying political crisis. And even if the United States "won," the result would probably be an Alawite stronghold the size of Lebanon along the Mediterranean coast that would still provide Iran with its strategic requirements vis a vis Hezbollah. That the United States would be prepared to lay siege to such a canton and hand its population over to vengeful Sunnis is at least debatable, if not absurd. 


The fourth category of argument advanced by proponents of intervention concerns the terrorist threat posed by Sunni extremists now incubating in Syria and running rampant in Iraq. Such militants are unquestionably a problem within Syria — for both the regime and the opposition — and certainly for Europe, where a reservoir of jihadist volunteers who might carry out attacks upon their return from the battlefield. Whether the majority of fighters in this conflict are focused on the United States or Western targets is open to question. At this stage not enough is known about the orientation of the majority of fighters in Syria. Numbers are also in dispute, in part because the intelligence is sketchy, and in part because outside observers often bring their own interests into the calculation, resulting in skewed numbers.

This uncertainty is compounded by the fact that many rebel fighters have affiliated with jihadist groups for tactical, as opposed to ideological and especially anti-American reasons. Because the jihadists win their fights more often than other opposition groups — and, in some areas, are better equipped and led — they tend to attract non-jihadists to their banner.

Former officials who have emerged as the voice of the interventionists contend that had the United States moved decisively against the Assad regime early in the conflict the jihadists now swarming over Syria would be at home warming their feet before the fire. This seems unlikely. 

What we know from the wars in Iraq and Libya is that Western intervention is an additional spur to jihadist activism. Militants began flocking to Libya virtually as soon as NATO announced its intention to depose Muammar al-Qaddafi. (To be fair, they were motivated to do so even in the absence of Western boots on the ground.) We also know that despite NATO’s military success, or perhaps because of it, these radical fighters have become entrenched in Libya, where they now preside over large population centers.

Iraq offers a more dramatic example. The presence of U.S. troops was an irresistible lure for jihadists — many from Libya — delighted that Washington had sent Americans over there. Indeed, it was U.S. involvement that triggered the counter-mobilization of jihadist forces.  The current US strategy toward the latest outbreak of jihadism in Iraq – enhancing the capacity of Iraqi forces to deal with the problem while perhaps preparing the ground for eventual dynamic targeting via drones – is therefore more sensible than dealing with jihadists in Iraq by attacking the Assad regime in Syria.  The difficult fact is that jihadism is a problematic feature of the Middle East and South Asian landscape at this historical juncture. Muslims animated by jihadist ideology are eager to fight for it and have a number of battlefields to choose from. Regime change in Syria, assuming it’s even feasible, will not reverse this trend.

Moreover, given the shape of the opposition at that early stage of the war, the claim that it could have marched on Damascus following U.S. airstrikes to reconstitute a functioning government is also implausible. The Syrian Army might have cracked in anticipation of a U.S. invasion or even a sustained air campaign against the regime. But regime supporters have proved quite resilient with their backs to the wall and fiercely sectarian paramilitary elements of regime forces would no doubt have continued to fight for their survival. The what-if-we-armed-the-rebels-earlier argument is an interesting counterfactual, but not a compelling one.

In thinking about the best approach to the jihadist challenge, it would be well to remember that U.S. counterterrorism capabilities have improved considerably since 9/11. That they are imperfect goes without saying; the Times Square bomber clearly demonstrated persistent defects. And it is true, as the saying goes, that terrorists only need to get lucky once. Statements by U.S. counterterrorism officials regarding ISIS planning to attack Western targets should not be disregarded.

But the fact is that America’s defenses are far better than they once were. Making the Department of Homeland Security work was said a decade ago to be a 10-year project; it has now been 10 years and the results are in. In combination with the vast increase in global U.S. communications surveillance; the sweeping provisions of the USA Patriot Act; much improved coordination between U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies; deployment of many more agents overseas; improved ties between the U.S. intelligence community and its foreign counterparts; and a stupendous financial commitment to countering terrorism, the case for "fighting them over there so we do not have to fight them over here" is far less forceful than it once was.

* * *

Left with an essentially moral case for intervention, proponents argue that the best way to stop the killing is to ramp up the war in the hope of toppling Assad or, as Amb. Robert Ford told Christiane Amanpour, to "increase the pressure on Assad" — presumably by doing more arming and training than the United States is currently doing. This will create additional pressure, but not on Assad, and it will not topple him.

The pressure instead will be on Iran and Russia to increase their already impressive support for the regime. This in turn will transform the conflict into a bidding war with Iran that the United States will be feel compelled to win once it has committed itself (cf., "reputation" above). The pressure at the end of the day will be back on Washington.

The final destination is a cul de sac: no amount of arming and training the weakest faction in Syria will enable it to inflict enough damage on the other two much more powerful players — the regime and ISIS — to force decisive concessions in the meaningful future. When Ambassador Ford joins Amanpour in saying that the administration’s strategy "isn’t working" he isn’t using the term "strategy" in the way it is normally used. The fact is that U.S. strategy is working well enough, to the extent that it entails staying out of asymmetric engagements in a civil war in a country where American interests are limited, while taking steps to buttress allies at risk and minimizing the suffering of non-combatants.

The situation is even more complicated because outside aid to splintered rebel movements tends to encourage further division as factions compete for resources. Nor does the moderate opposition necessarily have the grip to hold on to what it gets. We’ve already seen evidence of this as ISIS has seized shipments of non-lethal aid from mainstream rebels. Thus, it’s at least debatable whether a U.S. intervention sufficiently decisive to topple Assad would produce less suffering and be more practicable than the massive humanitarian aid program and reported efforts to arm and train opposition fighters that are now under way.

What about the intermediate steps between inaction and boots on the ground that President Obama’s critics claim to exist? These critics are offering nothing especially revelatory or innovative from the administration’s perspective. The full range of options was defined and elaborated on early in the Syrian crisis and, if reports are true, is under more or less continuous administration review. The kinds of measures contemplated, whether arming or training insurgents, boosting the political opposition, or taking the sort of direct actions that would degrade an adversary’s ability to operate militarily have all been employed by the United States in recent years in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. Some of them have already been applied in Syria. The problem with multiplying and expanding the scope of these intermediate steps is that they don’t get you where you want to go, if where you want to go is a political solution that results in a rapid end to the violence.

The issue has never been what could we do, but rather what happens after we do it?

This brings us back to today’s Tonkinitis. If the United States were to take ownership of this civil war by trying to intervene in a decisive way, it would ineluctably be held responsible for Syria’s reconstruction and stabilization. The bill for Iraq and Afghanistan is $4-6 trillion, according to a recent study by Harvard economists, and nearly the whole sum was seems to have been borrowed. It is now estimated to be about a fifth of our national debt. The cost — and immense difficulty — of reconstituting Syria’s state and economy would be less imposing than it was in Iraq because it wouldn’t include the personnel and materiel lifecycle costs of large-scale multi-year deployments, but it would still constitute a serious burden when added to what was spent in the two earlier wars.  Perhaps if some of America’s friends and allies who occasionally clamor for intervention could persuade Washington that they might be counted on to finance the costs and contribute the highly trained personnel, including Blue Helmets, to manage the aftermath, there might be more of a U.S. willingness to do more. Unfortunately, post-war conditions in Libya have demonstrated only too clearly that these allies lack the will and capacity to follow through.  They have their own problems.

The claim of intervention advocates — that if only the United States exercised "leadership" an international coalition could be mobilized to depose Assad and end the conflict — simply does not ring true. If London had not backed out of its commitment to join Washington in striking the regime last August, the attacks would almost certainly have been carried out. But the British did back out because Parliament – the British people — decisively and acidly rejected the government’s case. The Elysee’s rhetoric about taking Britain’s place was widely derided within France by those, ironically, who thought that President Francois Hollande was too eager to be Washington’s poodle and, from the other side, by skeptics of French capacity to follow through.

Pressures to intervene in Syria, or Iraq, or both will grow as frustrated diplomats, among others, take their case for deeper intervention to the media – as they should — and as the administration’s political adversaries weaponize their pleas to exploit an increasingly poisonous political process. The administration will probably respond with incremental steps toward the creation of a more effective moderate opposition force in Syria, while confining its military involvement in Iraq largely to counterterrorism objectives. But with Tonkinitis in the background, and only vague American equities in the future shape of the Syrian state, expectations of a step change in policy are not only unrealistic but out of sync with American strategic interests.

Steven Simon is a Research Analyst at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft and Professor of the Practice of International Relations at Colby. He served on the National Security Council in the Clinton and Obama administrations.

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