US is trying not to repeat in Syria its mistakes in Iraq
Washington - As the United States looks beyond a military defeat of the Islamic State (ISIS) in northern Syria, calculations by American planners are shaped by one central imperative: Don’t repeat the mistakes made in Iraq.
Memories of failed efforts at nation-building in Iraq following the US-led invasion in 2003 haunt today’s actions and plans by the United States for Syria. A decade ago, Washington’s dream of a Western-style system in Baghdad turned into a nightmare of spiralling sectarian violence that resulted in tens of thousands of people dead, heavy US casualties, a prolonged US military presence deeply unpopular at home and an increased Iranian influence.
“Iraq is the ‘How not to,’” said Peter Feaver, a Middle East expert at Duke University in North Carolina. He described the Middle East policies of US President Donald Trump and of his predecessor Barack Obama as guided by “ghosts and lessons of Iraq.”
The United States is backing a force of Kurdish and Arab fighters that has encircled Raqqa in northern Syria, the capital of the self-proclaimed ISIS caliphate. After being driven out of the Iraqi city of Mosul, the loss of Raqqa would be a major blow to the jihadists three years after they swept through large sections of Syria and Iraq.
Trump has made the defeat of ISIS a policy priority but his administration has shunned big troop deployments, relying on a limited number of special forces units and military advisers instead.
Brett McGurk, envoy for the international anti-ISIS coalition, described the Syria approach during a briefing in Washington and stressed that the United States was not in the business of nation-building this time.
“Sometimes we meet with local councils and they say: ‘We really want you, the United States, to help us with the — you’re going to run the hospitals, aren’t you? You’re going to run our school system,’” McGurk said, a transcript of the briefing posted on the US State Department’s website stated.
“And no, we’re not, we’re not doing that,” he added, describing his answer to the wishes expressed by the local councils. “We’ve learned some lessons and we’re not very good at that and also that is not our responsibility. We will do basic stabilisation.”
McGurk recounted a plan to reopen schools in Tabqa in northern Syria, captured from ISIS this year. Tabqa’s local leaders asked and received US support to clear school buildings of explosives left by ISIS but the United States was not going to do more than make sure the buildings were safe, McGurk said.
“We’re going to do all we possibly can to have as many schools as ready in Tabqa for the opening of the school year on September 15th but, again, in terms of school curriculums, teachers, all this — this is the responsibility of the Syrians on the ground and the Iraqis on the ground, not us.”
Analysts said US caution in post-war planning for Syria is a direct consequence of the disaster in Iraq. “The US-led invasion of Iraq transformed the views of a generation of Americans towards both intervention and state building,” said Hady Amr, a former Obama administration official who dealt with US aid for the Middle East and now works for the Brookings Institution in Washington.
“There was a tremendous cost in American blood and treasure while America’s infrastructure crumbled and America’s middle class suffered,” Amr said in reference to the Iraq campaign of 2003 and its consequences.
The Trump administration has not presented a viable political plan for a post-war order in northern Syria. Like Obama, Trump is determined to “stay in the game” without a big military engagement, Feaver said.
The strategy of leaving important tasks to others has its downsides. In the Raqqa offensive, Washington is backing a Kurdish group regarded as a terrorist organisation by Syria’s neighbour and America’s NATO ally Turkey.
The growing row with Turkey over the Kurdish role in Syria and over control over regions liberated from ISIS also points to another consequence of the US hands-off strategy. As it shuns responsibilities that it shouldered in Iraq, America must accept that other players get their say.
“If you pay the entire bill, you can choose all the menu options,” Feaver said, “but both Obama and Trump have made clear that the US is not paying the whole bill in Syria, so you lose control of what is on the menu.”
In the United States, even the limited engagement in Syria triggers concerns among those who fear it could spiral into something more.
“The further Washington wedges itself into Syria’s ever-shifting kaleidoscope of conflict — a conflict in which we have no vital national interest at stake — the more responsible for the aftermath the United States will become,” Bonnie Kristian, a fellow at think-tank Defense Priorities, wrote in an August 10 article for the Hill, a Washington publication. Kristian’s article carried the headline “Escalation in Syria will mean increased nation-building in Syria.”