Stay Out of Syria!

After the troubling revelations of the May 8 Senate hearing on Benghazi, much remains unclear about the attack that killed four Americans last September. Were the killers aiming to prove the incompetence of American power? Or was the assault directed more specifically against CIA operations? How did the White House, the State Department, and the CIA all agree to say so early and wrongly that the attack could have been the spontaneous action of a crowd infuriated by an anti-Muslim video? Why did the administration delete from its talking points the mention of five similar attacks in Libya, and the fact that al-Qaeda-linked forces were known to be active in the vicinity?

Bashar al-Assad
Bashar al-Assad; drawing by James Ferguson

One thing is clear. The Benghazi killings were an indirect but predictable consequence of the NATO intervention that overthrew Muammar Qaddafi. Disorder was a necessary condition of the attack. The “light footprint” of NATO was never going to be sufficient to contain the forces the war released. With the death of Qaddafi and the instability of NATO’s interim arrangements, his troops and weapons moved southward in Africa; and the evacuation of US State Department workers in Mali in January and the attack on international workers in Algeria are now widely understood to have been another fruit of the NATO action in Libya. For Americans, of course, Libya is almost forgotten, but for North Africa and the watching Arab world, it remains a vivid and disturbing memory: seven months of air attacks, with thousands of sorties, 7,700 bombs dropped or missiles launched, and uncounted civilian casualties.

The deepening violence of the Syrian civil war is also in some measure a consequence of Libya: Qaddafi’s disbanded army and unguarded weapons moved southward in Africa, but they also moved eastward to Asia. The state terror of the most “surgical” air war leaves in its wake many thousands of stateless terrorists. As Nancy Youssef pointed out in a penetrating survey on March 14 in the McClatchy newspapers (“Middle East in Turmoil 10 Years After Iraq Invasion”): “The most effective anti-Assad rebel military faction [in Syria], the Nusra Front,” is itself “a branch of al Qaida in Iraq, the same radical Islamist group that the US fought in that country and that the current Iraqi government also is battling.”

The recent past is still with us, if we take the time to look. This is the background against which one must assess the judgment of those persons—well placed in the media and the foreign policy elite—who have lately urged another violent intervention by the US in Arab lands. Three days before the Benghazi hearings, on May 5, Bill Keller published a double-length Op-Ed in The New York Times. His column was entitled “Syria Is Not Iraq,” and its moral was adequately conveyed in Keller’s final words: “Getting Syria right starts with getting over Iraq.”

Let us pause to remember Iraq before we follow Keller’s invitation…

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