Lessons of Iraq should be applied to Syria

Interventionists have successfully pushed President Barack Obama into increasing military involvement in Syria. Their rationale feels eerily similar to the reasons used for the invasion of Iraq. Before our actions spin further out of control, we should pause to review the lessons learned from invading Iraq, Syria's next-door neighbor.

Ten years after the U.S. invasion, Iraq remains in a state of continuing civil war-like violence. With a toll of more than 100,000 civilian deaths and far more injuries over the course of the war, the argument that we should enter Syria to stop the current carnage of this multi-faction war is undermined by our recent experience in the region. Just as our presence and choice of factions inflamed opposing groups in Iraq, many Syrians are bound to resent the presence of the U.S. This time, the added danger of other powers joining the fight in an all-out proxy war looms large. Russia is sending air and marine support; the U.S. has pledged small arms and anti-tank weapons; Iran has been funneling arms and manpower through Hezbollah.

In Iraq, a country known before the war as one with good relations and frequent marriages between Sunnis and Shiites, the divide between these groups is now larger than ever. Prior to the war, al-Qaida had no presence in Iraq; now the country lives under a continual cloud of al-Qaida-fueled violence. Instead of quieting sectarian divisions, our invasion only served to fuel divisiveness, violence and terrorist activity.

In addition to its primary purpose of rooting out weapons of mass destruction that turned out not to be there, our foray into Iraq was advertised as one that would free Iraqis from their detestable dictator, Saddam Hussein, after which Iraq's relatively educated populace would create a democracy in the Arab world. Instead, we have actions like Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's forces' recent deadly attack that led to a Sunni uprising across Anbar province and Baghdad, with increased violence in cities near Hawija and Sulaiman Pek, north of Tikrit. Deadly violence continues, with government troops attacking these cities in a military-style assault with loudspeakers urging civilians to evacuate while electricity is cut off. This get-tough policy is hardly the vision that was foreseen by the interventionists who urged our invasion.

Ten years after our invasion, more than 1,000 Iraqis were killed in deadly violence in May. Shootings and car bombs are feature of daily life in Iraq. Sunni tribal leaders have now called for armed resistance and demand that the country be divided into a federation. In Syria, where many of the lines are also drawn between religious and ethnic groups, the same lethal divisiveness may result from aiding individual groups, especially when their intentions are unclear.

Iraq is a broken nation, and we helped to break it. Whether the break was accidental or intentional, the outcome is the same for the people of Iraq. There are lessons to be learned here, but even though the current administration has tried to hold back militarily, the pressure to interfere has overtaken restraint. It is difficult to hold back the urge to dive in when we continue to bear the brunt of a turbulent region and its violent terrorist actors. It is difficult to see a humanitarian disaster fueled by the actions of a cruel leader and not want to help.

Syria lies at the junction of both of these concerns. But we cannot put ourselves in the role of lighting a match that can both fuel greater humanitarian disasters as well as increased terrorism. We have proven ourselves to be pretty good at breaking a nation but not so good these days at patching it up. Let's learn from past experience this time — before it is too late.

Adil E. Shamoo, a native of Iraq, is an associate fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies, a senior analyst for Foreign Policy in Focus and the author of "Equal Worth — When Humanity Will Have Peace." He can be reached at ashamoo@som.umaryland.edu. Bonnie Bricker, a freelance writer and teacher in Howard County, is a contributor to Foreign Policy in Focus.