WASHINGTON — An imminent U.S. strike on Syrian government targets in response to the alleged gassing of civilians last week has the potential to draw the United States into the country's civil war, former U.S. officials said, warning that history doesn't bode well for such limited, retaliatory interventions.
The best historical parallels — the 1998 cruise missile strikes on targets in Iraq, Afghanistan and Sudan — are rife with unintended consequences and feature no success stories.
"The one thing we should learn is you can't get a little bit pregnant," said retired Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni, who was at the helm of U.S. Central Command when the Pentagon launched cruise missiles at suspected terrorist sites in Afghanistan and weapons facilities in Saddam Hussein's Iraq. "If you do a one-and-done and say you're going to repeat it if unacceptable things happen, you might find these people keep doing unacceptable things. It will suck you in."
Images of the glassy-eyed corpses of civilians, including children, killed in last week's chemical attack in a Damascus suburb struck a powerful chord in Washington, where until now there has been little appetite for a military intervention. With U.S. Navy destroyers stationed in the eastern Mediterranean, the White House is scrambling to assemble international support for a days-long bombing campaign targeting military sites, which appears to have robust support from Congress.
The United States has at best a mixed record of success with such operations. In late August 1998, the Pentagon fired cruise missiles at suspected terrorist camps in Afghanistan and a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan that was presumed to be producing chemical weapons. The campaign, called Operation Infinite Reach, was launched in response to the bombings on Aug. 7, 1998, of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, which were the first al-Qaida attacks on U.S. targets.
The strikes in Afghanistan failed to kill al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden or his top lieutenants. The one in Sudan became an embarrassment for the Pentagon because the intelligence that put a pharmaceutical factory on the target list turned out to be faulty.
In December of that year, the Clinton administration lobbed cruise missiles at military targets in Iraq in response to Hussein's refusal to comply with United Nations resolutions that condemned Iraq's weapons program. Former U.S. officials said neither operation dealt much of a strategic setback to the targets. But they enraged many in the Muslim world, prompting angry demonstrations, including an attempted siege of the U.S. Embassy in Damascus by a mob that later ransacked the ambassador's residence.
"We didn't really gain anything," said longtime U.S. diplomat Ryan Crocker, who was ambassador in Damascus at the time. "The behavior of our adversaries did not change. A couple of cruise missiles are not going to change their way of thinking."
With Congress in recess, the lead-up to a military strike on Syria has unfolded with relatively little substantive debate on Capitol Hill about the risks and merit of a cruise missile strike. Potential pitfalls include strengthening rebel factions aligned with al-Qaida and triggering even more brutal attacks by the regime.
The limited debate the anticipated operation in Syria has generated has centered on questions of presidential powers.
After a few conservative Republicans insisted that the Obama administration needed congressional authorization before ordering a strike, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, urged the White house to conduct "meaningful consultation with members of Congress" and articulate "clearly defined objectives" before giving the Pentagon the green light.
Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., a frequent critic of President Barack Obama, was one of at least 20 lawmakers who signed a letter written by Rep. Scott Rigell, R-Va., arguing that it would be illegal for the White House to authorize an attack on Syria without a congressional sign-off.
A swift military response is justified if the United States faces an imminent threat, Rigell said in an interview. But the situation in Syria "is not that circumstance," he argued. "A threat is not imminent."
Lawmakers have often been quick to back military interventions begun in response to the type of international outrage sparked by Syria's alleged use of chemical weapons last week, the first major nerve gas attack in more than 25 years.
"When there is a humanitarian disaster, people want to see something happen," Zinni said. "You'll knee-jerk into the first option, blowing something up, without thinking through what this could lead to."
In an operation some policy analysts have used as a template, the U.S. and NATO allies started a bombing campaign in 1999 in an effort to stop ethnic cleansing and drive Serbian forces from Kosovo. American diplomat Christopher Hill, who was dispatched as special envoy to Kosovo, said there was an expectation that U.S. military intervention would be short and decisive. Some thought the bombing campaign would last a few days, Hill said, but it dragged on for 78.
"The problem is that people expect when U.S. military assets are deployed that we will do so until the regime goes away," he said.
Hill said he understands and supports the White House's desire to launch a strike, but with a major caveat.
"The problem with Syria is that it's bombing in the absence of a political plan," said Hill, who worries that the government of President Bashar Assad could respond with even more chemical attacks. "I think we're opening a big door. Every time you drop bombs on something, you can't entirely predict the results."
Christopher Harmer, a former Navy planner who is an analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, said a quick military campaign that is not accompanied by a clear end goal is a terrible idea.
"Conducting a punitive attack that does not fundamentally alter the balance of power is in my opinion worse than doing nothing," said Harmer, who last month drafted a report outlining how cruise missile strikes could degrade Syria's air force and air defenses. U.S. bombs raining down on Damascus could boost Assad's standing, giving credence that the war he is waging is one against external threats.
"The way he has been defining himself now becomes true," Harmer said. "It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy."