Reports that the White House and European allies are considering military action to topple Syria's Bashar al-Assad regime carry disturbing echoes of the Iraq debacle.
The talk of covert action, "no fly zones," and military involvement via proxies has ratcheted up following the Russian and Chinese veto of a United Nations Security Council resolution that, the Russians said, opened the door to "regime change" intervention.
As with Iraq in the run-up to the 2003 invasion, the U.S. and its allies appear to be relying on an exile-based alliance that is pressing for foreign intervention to oust Assad - the Syrian National Council.
SNC leaders "have been out of the country for a long time and ... are very savvy at talking to the West," Syria scholar Joshua Landis of the University of Oklahoma told the Canadian Broadcasting Company. The SNC includes Muslim Brotherhood and secular figures. According to Dubai-based al-Arabiya, a majority of the council's members live outside of Syria.
It recalls the exile-based Iraqi National Congress, led by the smooth-talking Ahmad Chalabi, which together with other Iraqi groups deemed acceptable by the Bush administration, coordinated with the U.S. military invasion in 2002 and 2003. According to a Council on Foreign Relations report in April 2003, these groups "all wanted to oust Saddam Hussein. But they have a long history of disagreement over a range of issues, including the ethnic composition of a post-Saddam government and whether the country should be a secular or an Islamist state. With the fall of Saddam, the infighting is continuing."
A Feb. 1, 2012, CBC article says of the Syrian National Council, "They are in favor of removing Assad from power and against negotiating with the regime but agree on little else ... The SNC has no coherent economic plan or vision of Syria's future, and the internal bickering within the council and lack of a strong, unifying leader threatens to render the council impotent."
But the SNC and its associated Free Syria Army are not the only Syrian element opposing the repression of the Assad regime. Landis and others emphasize the diverse nature of the opposition.
The National Coordinating Body for Democratic Change is, according to the al-Arabiya report, "an umbrella group of Arab nationalist figures, socialists, independents, Marxists and also comprises members of Syria's minority Kurdish community. The coalition is staunchly opposed to any international military intervention." The CBC report says this coalition backs "a peaceful transition of power" and is "willing to negotiate with the Assad regime."
Numerous local grassroots groups are also involved in protests against the regime.
Yet despite the diversity of the Syrian protest movement and the unclarity of the goals of the SNC pro-foreign-intervention elements, these are the forces that seem to be getting U.S. policymakers' attention.
The Feb. 1 Canadian report says SNC leaders have been "vague on whether they would support a foreign military intervention, with some factions saying they would accept Arab forces but not Western troops, and others voicing support for actions short of intervention such as a no-fly zone."
In Washington, "the National Security Council is said to be preparing a 'presidential finding,' an executive order authorizing covert action, as a policy option, but it is not clear whether the White House would take the risky step of signing it," the UK Guardian reports.
Any outside involvement in Syria would have "an Arab face," a former British intelligence officer told the Guardian.
Turkey and Qatar are backing "some sort of limited military intervention," says the Guardian. Options being discussed include NATO operations to set up a "buffer zone" and "humanitarian corridor" within Syria.
Commentator Evelyn Aissa warns that "any such effort would first require international forces to launch a preemptive air campaign to neutralize the government's air-defense systems. This would require bombing key military installations in and around Damascus, Aleppo, and Lattakia - all densely populated areas."
Compared to Libya, which is a relative backwater with regard to regional and global political dynamics, Syria is central to the political and economic dynamics of the Middle East. The bloodshed and deadly sectarian division that continue to wrack Iraq nine years after the U.S. invasion offer a warning of the possible consequences of foreign intervention in Syria.
Moreover, in addition to the severe political repression practiced by the regimes of Hafiz al-Assad and his son Bashar, economic issues play a central role in the protests. The 2005 introduction of neoliberal "social market economy" policies by Bashar al-Assad "exacerbated existing structural disparities and social discontent," writes Bassam Haddad, director of the Middle East Studies Program at George Mason University.
"The increasing withdrawal of state subsidies and welfare, the gradual introduction of weak market institutions to replace corrupt but functioning institutions of the state, alongside continued notorious mismanagement of the economy, became a recipe for social unrest. The scant rainfall during the past decade further caused massive migration and a loss of jobs in the countryside." These added fuel to "the fire of social protest potential after 2010. All it took was a spark." The spark, Haddad says, was the self-immolation of the Tunisian street vendor a year ago.
Any resolution to Syria's crisis will have to address these issues along with democratization of the political structure.
Photo: Syrian flag flies over Damascus CC 2.0.