Syria: The Search for a Precedent

Kosovo and Operation Desert Fox are cited, yet Grenada is a better analogue.

As members of Congress decide whether or not to support legislation authorizing military strikes against Syria with the knowledge that the United Nations Security Council is not likely to provide any imprimatur—as it did for the Gulf War in 1991, a critical factor in why a number of representatives and senators chose to back president George H.W. Bush—the supporters of imminent action have been sifting through the historical record to find ways to justify the use of force.

The military missions most commonly cited as analogies have been the Iraq War of 2003, the Kosovo intervention in 1999, and the Desert Fox operation in 1998. The Iraq War has become an unpleasant precedent, given that U.S. claims about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction proved to be unfounded while evidence, particularly from United Nations inspectors, that Baghdad did not possess WMD capabilities were discounted. The vote in the British parliament against taking any immediate action against Syria, as well as the skepticism of other governments and indeed many Americans, reflects a post-Iraq War legacy of distrust as to the veracity of definitive claims by U.S. intelligence.

The Desert Fox operation is a more seductive analogy, because the scope of that operation seems to resemble the coming campaign against Syria. The four-day series of air strikes against Iraq— conducted only by the United States and Great Britain, and without any specific authorization from the Security Council, was designed to degrade Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's military capabilities and diminish his weapons stockpiles. No one was under any illusions that Desert Fox would precipitate the fall of Saddam’s regime. Rather, the campaign was designed to punish him for his apparent efforts to obstruct UN weapons inspections. Washington's intent with Desert Fox was to maintain an international norm against the illicit acquisition of weapons of mass destruction, just as it wants to maintain a norm against chemical-weapons use today. Indeed, Desert Fox may provide a useful template, only with France taking the place of the U.K., and the testimony of President Barack Obama’s national-security team on Capitol Hill suggests that they are eager to embrace a similar set of limited military objectives. Both chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel were careful not to oversell any proposed military action, utilizing a similar focus on degrading rather than completely destroying capabilities. But, in contrast to Desert Fox, it is not clear today whether a Syria mission would be to secure and destroy chemical weapons or simply “degrade” the offensive capabilities of the regime—or whether it would be only a first step to escalation that would culminate in Assad's overthrow itself. Some in the Obama administration are firmly committed to the most minimal definition of the mission, but others may hope that if the U.S. dips its toe in the water of a deproliferation mission, it may end up jumping in the swimming pool of a full-fledged humanitarian intervention.

That is why many observers have found the Kosovo precedent more attractive. Just like today, a Russian veto stood in the way of any sort of authorization from the UN Security Council. So, in its search for some degree of international legitimacy in the Kosovo case, Washington chose to turn to NATO. Its argument was that, if the UN Security Council proved deadlocked, a regional security organization was capable of providing the necessary authorization.

But if you scrutinize the details, Kosovo is not much of an analogy after all. In military terms, it is a far different mission. The Kosovo operation was about forcing Yugoslav forces out of a specified piece of territory and getting acceptance of the terms of the stillborn Rambouillet Agreement for settling the Serb-Kosovar dispute. Despite being indicted for war crimes, Slobodan Milosevic's personal surrender was not a precondition for ending the NATO operation; and, contrary to some popular beliefs today, the NATO operation did not lead to any regime change in Belgrade—Milosevic was overthrown some sixteen months after the end of the Kosovo campaign.