Syria: The Search for a Precedent

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.="#v=snippet&q=%22unilateral%20military%20action%20in%20iraq%22&f=false">

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.

This, in turn, means that the justifications NATO provided for intervening in Kosovo are irrelevant when it comes to Syria. NATO was explicitly concerned with a humanitarian emergency in Kosovo; the United States has so far has focused on whether a particular type of chemical ordnance was deployed rather than the ongoing refugee crisis caused by two years of civil war. More importantly, in the case of Syria, the United States has not, in fact, managed to acquire the backing of any regional security organization: the Arab League has come out squarely against any intervention, and NATO head Anders Fogh Rasmussen has stated that the Atlantic alliance has no plans to attack, either. There is no regional organization prepared to substitute itself for the Security Council—and while the Arab League has called for unspecified action, it has not specifically endorsed a U.S. military response.

That leaves one precedent that has mostly been forgotten—U.S. President Ronald Reagan's intervention in Grenada in 1983. In broad strategic strokes, the chaotic situation in Grenada then resembles what is happening in Syria today. Following the murder of Maurice Bishop, who had been the revolutionary president of the Caribbean island nation for the past four years, there were fears that Soviets and Cubans were attempting to solidify a beachhead in the region. This led to concerns about Grenada becoming an exporter of revolution and disorder throughout the Caribbean, undermining the governments of the neighboring islands, much in the same way that the crisis in Syria raises fears about the spillover of disorder (not to mention the effects of possible further chemical strikes) to surrounding countries.

As with the present Syria intervention, the relevant regional organization did not endorse an intervention. Indeed, the Organization of East Caribbean States (OECS) was legally incapable of requesting an intervention, because it was obliged to reach its decisions unanimously—and Grenada was thus in the position of vetoing any such request.

But this did not stop the Reagan administration from evoking regional stability as a justification for intervention. Washington claimed that individual neighbors of Grenada (including non-OECS members like Jamaica) felt threatened by the chaos there—indeed, it highlighted the fact that the chairman of the OECS, Prime Minister Eugenia Charles of Dominica, was explicitly in favor of a U.S. intervention. In the same way, the Obama administration could evoke the interests of Syria's neighbors, even if it cannot point to an institutional endorsement from the Arab League. Turkey has already spoken out in favor of intervention. Would members of Congress be more receptive to requests of other regional allies like Jordan and Israel to take action to restore regional peace and security?

It is true that many countries publicly chose not to accept the justifications put forward by the United States in the aftermath of the Grenada operation, even if quietly a number of countries approved of the U.S. action (including the governor-general of Grenada, Paul Scoon). Like the later Kosovo operation, most concluded that the invasion was an illegal but legitimate regional peacekeeping action whose positive end result justified the bending of international statutes. In much the same way, a Syrian operation—provided it succeeds in either dissuading the regime from further chemical weapons use or in destroying its capabilities—would similarly be criticized but ultimately accepted.

Grenada is not a perfect analogy for the mission in Syria, of course. That earlier mission—which involved sending ground troops to pave the way for new elections—was much more expansive than anything the Obama administration is considering, notwithstanding the "slip" by Secretary of State John Kerry in testimony before the Senate on Tuesday that the President might need to retain the option to deploy boots on the ground in order to prevent Syria from "imploding" or to secure chemical weapons stockpiles from extremist organizations. In terms of a tactical precedent, the operation against Iraq in 1998 offers a much more promising example. But nothing is stopping the United States from using Grenada reasoning to legitimize a Desert Fox strategy. Indeed, given the foreclosing of other options, this might be its only way left to act.

Nikolas K. Gvosdev, a senior editor at The National Interest, is a professor of national-security studies at the U.S. Naval War College. The views expressed are entirely his own.