The Obama administration, trying to avoid getting drawn deeper into Syria’s civil war, has pointed to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 as a symbol of what can go wrong when America’s military wades into Middle East conflicts.
But experts say the White House is looking at the wrong Iraq war, especially as the U.S. reluctantly considers a no-fly zone over Syria to stop President Bashar Assad from continuing to use his air power to crush rebel forces or kill civilians.
A no-fly zone is a territory over which warring aircraft are not allowed to fly. The U.S. and international allies have enforced them in several military conflicts over the past two decades.
When he took office in 2009, President Barack Obama promised to end the U.S. war in Iraq as an example of refocusing on issues that had direct impact on Americans. By the time the U.S military withdrew from Iraq in 2011, almost 4,500 American soldiers and more than 100,000 Iraqis had died. The war toppled Saddam Hussein but also sparked widespread sectarian fighting and tensions that still simmer.
But when considering a no-fly zone, experts point to 1992, a year after the Gulf War. That’s when the U.S. imposed a weakly-enforced no-fly zone over southern Iraq and could not prevent Saddam, a Sunni Muslim, from persecuting and killing hundreds of thousands of Shiites whom he viewed as a political threat.
That failure is now being used as a case in point of why the U.S. should or shouldn’t police the Syrian sky to prevent Assad from accelerating a two-year death toll that last week reached 93,000.
The White House is undecided on whether it will impose a no-fly zone over Syria, as some have demanded. Egypt’s president, Mohammed Morsi, on Saturday called for a U.N. endorsed no-fly zone.
“We’ve rushed to war in this region in the past. We’re not going to do it here,” Obama’s chief of staff, Denis McDonough, said Sunday on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”
Supporters of a no-fly zone in Syria point to the one that was established by NATO over Libya in 2011. It overwhelmed Moammar Gadhafi’s air defenses and attacked tanks and military vehicles that threatened civilians.
But European nations have shown little appetite for getting directly involved in Syria, where Assad’s forces possess an air-defense system made far more robust with Russian-bought weapons than what Gadhafi had.