In March 2003, an America-led coalition of 46 countries invaded Iraq to topple the Baathist dictator Saddam Hussein and end his pursuit of weapons of mass destruction. Saddam’s government fell in a matter of weeks. And yet it was months before coalition forces captured him, weapons stockpiles were never found, and ethno-sectarian violence persisted at horrific levels until 2008. Over the course of the last decade some 4,800 coalition soldiers were killed, many thousands more were wounded, and a hundred-thousand-plus Iraqis lost their lives. The human cost of the Iraq war was high and terrible, and no one wants to repeat the experience.
In March 2011, a civilian uprising began in Syria against the rule of Baathist dictator Bashar al-Assad. As the conflict persisted it took on a brutal cast. Sunni jihadists and Saudi and Jordanian-backed rebels fought the minority Alawite regime as the dictator massacred his population and decimated his society with the help of Russian arms, Iranian Revolutionary Guardsmen, and Hezbollah militias. So far a hundred thousand Syrians have been killed. More than a million refugees have flooded into Turkey and Jordan and Iraq. The dictator has deployed chemical agents against civilians on multiple occasions, including a recent strike in which 355 men, women, and children were killed. Al Qaeda-backed elements operate through swaths of the northern desert, and use Syria as a base of operations from which to reconstitute al Qaeda in Iraq. Here, too, the human cost of the war has been high and terrible. Indeed, quantitatively, it is worse than Iraq.
What is the difference between these two conflicts? In the former one, the United States was a participant. And America’s actions produced the current end state that, while not optimal, is better than the status quo ante. The dictator of Iraq, his family, and his party are dead or disbarred. They will never again threaten their neighbors, gas their people, or restart their weapons programs. The world never will have to worry about Saddam Hussein becoming a nuclear power. Nor will the world have to worry, at least for the time being, about ethno-sectarian genocide in Iraq, about al Qaeda turning Anbar and Diyala Provinces into Salafist strongholds and training grounds, about an Iraq partitioned irrevocably and dangerously into three squabbling nations.
In the latter conflict, the Syrian conflict, America has not participated at all. True, there have been gestures. The American president has deplored the violence. In 2011, he demanded Bashar al Assad give up power. In 2012, he said the use of chemical or biological weapons would be a red line triggering a forceful American response. America assisted covertly in training some rebel groups, supplied humanitarian aid, and promised, after Assad crossed the red line for the first time, to arm the rebels. But these words have not been followed by any meaningful action. Assad is still there. And the rebels have not received what they were promised.