Syria 2014 is not Iraq 2003

Generals, they say, tend to fight the last war. In the case of the U.S.-led campaign against Islamic State, so do some prominent news organizations.

The “last war” in this case is the 2003 invasion of Iraq, a catastrophic strategic mistake. The threats cited to make such expensive and destabilizing carnage necessary – weapons of mass destruction and an Iraqi al-Qaida presence – were false. The United States introduced war and a raft of unwanted consequences to a fragile country that was in a state of (repressive) peace. Many U.S. and British media organizations remain scarred by their failure to question their governments’ claims more aggressively.

Now that the U.S. has launched airstrikes in Syria many of those same news groups, including the New York Times, are concerned that this marks the start of yet another ill-considered U.S. war in the Middle East – one with no good cause or outcome, fraught with potential unintended consequences. This time, they are determined not to get caught out again by suspect intelligence claims.

The instinct is honorable, but it’s worth spelling out the reasons that the campaign against Islamic State in Syria is not like the invasion of Iraq:

• There is no peace to destroy in Syria. According to the United Nations, about 200,000 people have been killed during Syria’s civil war, and the body count is not slowing. Indeed, Islamic State is now expanding the war into the Kurdish areas of Syria, not to mention Iraq.

• There is no fragile unity to unbalance. Syria is already a fragmented, failed state with melting borders, in which President Bashar Assad is merely first among warlords.

• Al-Qaida is present. The al-Nusra Front is an al-Qaida franchise, and Islamic State is the former al-Qaida in Iraq – one that has fallen out with the al-Qaida leadership in Pakistan and Afghanistan, which thinks the group is too savage, locally focused and uppity.

• The “Khorasan Group” may or may not be a concocted mirage of the kind that former Secretary of State Colin Powell held up at the U.N. Security Council in 2003, to gain support for invasion of Iraq. Yet Khorasan’s imminent plot is not needed to justify intervention.

• Not one Arab state joined former President George W. Bush’s coalition of the willing in Iraq. By contrast, all five participants in the U.S.-led airstrikes in Syria were from the region, suggesting they agree about the reality of the threat posed and the need to confront it.

• The U.S. is not providing the boots on the ground to fight Islamic state in Iraq or Syria. Almost 200,000 coalition troops took part in the Iraq invasion of 2003, compared with the roughly 1,600 in Iraq and zero in Syria now.

• Finally, President Barack Obama and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel are reluctant warriors, who have clearly learned the lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan but have been forced by events to take action they have long resisted. They do not resemble Bush and former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in any way.

Right question to ask

Whether this campaign will succeed in destroying Islamic State is a different question. The outlook is poor, precisely because the disintegration of Syria and Iraq is so far advanced and the ground forces on which success depends are weak. In addition, Islamic State is a terrorist organization that has metastasized into a more traditional fighting force. If defeated in the field, the group won’t disappear; it will simply shrink back to its original form.

Yet precisely because this is not an interstate war that must have a clear outcome, the question is wrongly framed. Instead of asking whether the group can be destroyed, the better questions are these: Can U.S. airstrikes and advisers prevent Islamic State from destroying the only stable parts of Iraq and Syria? Can they prevent genocide against religious minorities in the two countries?

More broadly, can airstrikes avert the spread of a Sunni-Shiite bloodbath, and the collapse of Jordan, Lebanon and even the gulf monarchies? Can they turn Islamic State from a success story, which has attracted a flood of recruits since June, into just another embattled group of Islamist radicals? These goals may well be achievable, and they require attacking Islamic State in Syria as well as Iraq.

Most important, the costs of a long air and assistance campaign do not outweigh the risks posed by allowing a terrorist organization to run an oil-rich territory at the heart of the Middle East.

I, too, am skeptical of the conveniently “imminent” Khorasan plot that U.S. officials say they sought to foil with airstrikes. But the threat posed by an estimated 2,000 foreign fighters with European or U.S. passports now in Syria is no mirage.