08/28/2013 02:03 pm ET Updated Aug 28, 2013

In Considering Syria Strike, Ghosts Of Past Interventions Haunt World Powers

As the world absorbs the likely prospect of a multinational military strike on Syria, governments and citizens around the globe are warily debating the wisdom of another foray into a seething conflict in the Middle East.

A general consensus has taken hold that the government of Syrian President Bashar al Assad was indeed responsible for unleashing chemical weapons in a rebel-held suburb of Damascus last week, killing hundreds and affecting thousands, many of them children.

Yet nothing close to consensus exists on the international response, or even the strategic context that ought to shape that response. No agreement has been reached on the legality or appropriateness of military action minus authorization from the United Nations Security Council -- a seeming impossibility, given Assad's support from Russia and China.

Memories of previous military misadventures in the Middle East, not least in Iraq, have sown worries that the key powers forging the action in Syria -- the United States, Great Britain and France -- are less than fully reliable arbiters of the facts on the ground.

In Great Britain, former Conservative cabinet minister Cheryl Gillan warned that an attack on Syria could lead to "absolute disaster."

"I voted for the Iraq war after I listened to Tony Blair," she told Huffington Post UK. "He turned out to be leading us all up the garden path. I don't want to do that again."

That assessment appears to be shared by much of the British public, where the latest YouGov poll, reported in The Sun, shows voters opposed to air strikes by a whopping 2-to-1 margin.

In some key respects, the atmosphere in Britain feels much as it did a decade ago in the run-up to the Iraq War, overseen by Prime Minister Tony Blair and U.S. President George W. Bush.

Blair is again demanding a military intervention against a Baathist dictator, this time in Syria. Then as now, the British foreign secretary wants to take a stand against weapons of mass destruction, with or without the support of the United Nations Security Council. Parliament is again poised to vote on whether to dispatch British bombers into action, even before UN weapons inspectors on the ground in Syria have issued their findings.

Yet, a decade after a similar constellation of forces led the way to an ultimately catastrophic war in Iraq, the dynamic differs in one key regard: Today, the British prime minister agitating for action is a Conservative, David Cameron. Tory backbench members of Parliament now seem as skeptical of confrontation as many members of the Labour party (although Blair himself, using language that harkened back to the sort of expansive talk that characterized the march into Iraq, declared recently in the Times of London that intervention was now required "to support freedom and democracy in Egypt and Syria").

On Tuesday, as a result of pressure from inside his own party, Cameron ordered a recall of Parliament and tweeted his decision to have "a clear Govt motion & vote on UK response to chemical weapons attacks."

The prime minister initially appeared likely to win the vote in the House of Commons on Thursday night. But HuffPost UK reported late Wednesday, the Labour party is intent on opposing the motion, complicating its passage.

However, the so-called royal prerogative means that the legal and constitutional power to declare war rests not with Parliament or the public, but with the prime minister. And Cameron, the self-professed "heir to Blair," is showing what some see as a messianic glint in his eye.

In the United States -- where President Barack Obama has been preparing the public for the seeming inevitability of strikes since as early as this weekend -- support for intervention appears wafer thin. Only 9 percent of respondents favored American military intervention in a Reuters/Ipsos poll conducted the same week as the reported chemical weapons attacks. And that margin increased to only 25 percent on the assumption that Assad is responsible for using such weapons.

At the same time, an elite consensus appears to be hardening behind at least limited air strikes against the regime. The debate over whether Assad was responsible for the chemical weapon attack appears over. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry suggested anyone proposing otherwise should "check their conscience."

Yet for Obama, crafting a military strike in Syria brings peril and evident discomfort. His presidency in some sense owes its existence to his early and strident opposition to the Iraq War. After intensifying the war in Afghanistan, he is now the president who has charted the path toward the exits. To call Obama a reluctant Middle East warrior is an understatement.

And yet Obama appears to have left himself little room to avoid the conflict, having publicly pledged that the use of chemical weapons in Syria was a red line that, if crossed, would be met with punishment. The threat has put the credibility of U.S. dictates on the line, all but necessitating some sort of military reaction to the chemical weapons attack.

But as Obama and other international leaders weigh their response, the strategy at play remains far from clear: Should a strike focus narrowly on deterring the next leader who might be tempted to use chemical weapons? That would suggest a missile strike aimed at installations believed to hold chemical capability. Or should the response be directed more broadly at assisting the rebel groups battling Assad?

Fundamental disagreements about the motivation for action in Syria are muddying political and public reactions to the prospect of a strike.

Earlier this year, when France intervened in Mali to oust Islamist rebels, nearly all French politicians supported the campaign. But Syria is another story, and such consensus will be difficult, if not impossible, to achieve.

President François Hollande has backed action that would "punish those who took the decision to gas the innocent." His colleagues in the majority Socialist government have concurred with this approach. But many other voices along the French political spectrum are urging caution.

The extreme left adamantly opposes military action. Pierre Laurent, head of the Communist Party, has asserted that "bombing Syria would add war to an already existing war, resulting in the hitherto unparalleled risk of a conflagration throughout the region." Laurent's stalwart ally Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a former French presidential candidate, has spoken even more emphatically.

"This war should not be waged," he warned in an interview on BFM-TV. "It would be a huge mistake."

At the opposite extreme of the political spectrum, souverainist politician Nicolas Dupont-Aignan agreed, calling a military intervention "total nonsense."

The far-right National Front has been primarily focused on the potential domestic consequences of an intervention. Florian Philippot, the party's vice-president, points to the presence of "radical Islamists" among the rebels who have been battling to topple Assad. The National Front's president, Marine Le Pen, has gone so far to accuse Hollande of "choosing the Islamists" in pursuing a strike against Assad.

"Sharia, the persecution of Christians ... this is what the country has in store if the United States and France get involved," she lamented in a statement.

A French member of the European Parliament, Rachida Dati, warned that a military strike in Syria risks "chaos following chaos."

By contrast, former members of the conservative government put an emphasis on national solidarity. Benoist Apparu, former secretary of state for housing, defended the "necessity" of an intervention. Deputy mayor of Nice Christian Estrosi took to Twitter to support Hollande's call to arms: "Despite my differences with François Hollande and his domestic politics, I fully support his statements on Syria."

Yet the centrist François Bayrou, president of the Democratic Movement party, took a softer tone, issuing a "call for caution."

After more than a decade in Afghanistan, the Canadian appetite for foreign conflict appears particularly low. Still, Canada has signaled a cautious and tempered willingness to support the campaign now apparently being prepared.

The government has condemned the Syrian regime for what it has called the "absolutely abhorrent" chemical weapons attack on its own people. That said, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird sounded hesitant Monday when he said the crisis is entering a "dangerous new phase" and that Canada will work with the UN to investigate the facts on the ground.

Opposition leader Thomas Mulcair sounded a similarly cautious note Monday, saying Canada should work through international law one step at a time. He did not, however, rule out support for a military intervention.

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper talked with Obama on Tuesday, and a spokesman said "both leaders agreed that significant use of chemical weapons merits a firm response from the international community in an effective and timely manner."

While Europeans and North Americans debate the consequences of military action from the relative comfort of geographic remove, Tunisians -- already within the orbit of Syria's bloody civil war and the broader conflagration in much of the Arab world -- are reacting with a mixture of concern and confusion.

An estimated 2,000 Tunisians have left for jihad in the Syrian conflict, and the nation has apparently inherited dozens of jihadist fighters fleeing the strife in Mali. Arms smuggling is thriving, thanks to networks in neighboring Libya. The crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt could send underground members to join active Islamic militant networks in the Sahel desert.

A primary fear in Tunisia is that spiraling violence in Syria could spread to Egypt and across North Africa. Tunisia, wedged between a chaotic Libya and an outlaw Sahel, would then bear the brunt of the migration of combatants, along with creeping radicalization among those displaced from homes and livelihoods.

Against this backdrop, Tunisia's government has remained silent on the possibility of western intervention. Neither the government troika, dominated by the Ennahdha Islamist party, nor the main opposition parties have expressed opinions.

This inaction largely reflects Tunisia's continued grappling with its own domestic situation in the wake of the revolution that crystalized the broader Arab Spring.

The National Constituent Assembly tasked with drafting a constitution has been suspended for more than a month in the face of political turmoil. Some 70 parliamentarians recently withdrew from the Assembly, blaming the troika's poor governance. The opposition is demanding the resignation of the government. A permanent sit-in occupies the vast Bardo square facing the Assembly, and recurrent protests have mobilized tens of thousands; while on the other side of the barbed wire, government supporters have chanted slogans in praise of Ennahdha.

On July 25, Mohamed Brahmi, an opposition member of the Assembly, was killed in what was the second assassination in six months, following the murder in February of charismatic opposition leader Chokri Belaïd. The army is also engaged in a fight against suspected terrorist groups in the mountains along the Algerian border.

Given all that, the likelihood of a multinational strike on Syria seems at once all too close and yet far away.

In Spain, which has generally lent its support to military actions involving NATO powers, Syria has provoked both concern and ambivalence. Here, too, the memory of the Iraq war debacle remains fresh. In 2003 then-president Jose Maria Aznar supported that American-led effort, despite the opposition of Spanish society. The current president, Mariano Rajoy, also supported the war as a government minister.

But today Rajoy's government is besieged by domestic issues: high-profile corruption cases, an unending economic crisis and, more recently, a conflict with England over Gibraltar. Facing such internal turmoil, Spain has yet to decide whether to participate in the Syrian military strike currently under discussion.

"The attacks with chemical weapons in Syria require a firm response from the international community," asserted foreign affairs minister José Manuel García Margallo in a press release on Tuesday. The Spanish government expressed its confidence in the UN Security Council and requested that the organization make "decisions that ensure that international law is respected."

But neither Rajoy nor his foreign minister have openly made statements about any intervention organized apart from the UN, thanks to an absolute parliamentary majority that shields the administration from pressure to articulate a clear position. The closest thing to an official government declaration on the Syrian conflict has come from Carlos Floriano, the number three in Rajoy's ruling party.

"I am under the impression that where we need to be is in line with our allies. In that sense, I believe that we are in the right place," he explained.

The Spanish opposition has indicated that it stands in favor of "a unanimous, forceful and of course measured response against the regime," according to a statement by Elena Valenciano, right-hand woman to the leader of the Socialist Party.

In Italy, another consistent ally of military action involving NATO powers, the government has expressed unwillingness to participate in a strike, absent the blessing of the U.N. Security Council.

Italy's foreign minister, Emma Bonino, has asserted that a unilateral attack on Syrian soil conducted without the security council's approval would be neither "adequate nor positive." Former left-leaning prime minister Romano Prodi echoed that sentiment, saying "humiliating the UN" with a unilateral intervention would not bring any tangible result in the Syrian conflict.

But even with the council's assent, Italy's participation would "not be automatic" with the matter referred to the Italian Parliament, Bonino declared at a conference with foreign affairs commissioners.

"The Security Council could and should take the matter in its own hands," the foreign minister said.

Bonino reminded the chambers that Italy is already busy with three important peace missions in Lebanon, Libya and Afghanistan, indicating that Italy is intent on pursuing a diplomatic response to the Syria crisis.

"Many roads can still be taken," Bonino said. "Assad should be brought to the international criminal court for it to investigate this atrocious crime."

In Japan, Prime Minister Abe Shinzo has called on Assad to relinquish power. Following consultations in Qatar, Shinzo declared that "the responsibility for the deterioration of the situation in Syria lies with the Assad regime, which appeals to violence, takes innocent lives and does not heed worsening humanitarian conditions."

But given the failure of armed militants to dislodge Assad in the course of a brutal war, such requests seem certain to achieve little. That leaves other nations to face the increasing certainty of a military confrontation with Syria, even as confusion over the objective and dissension over the means complicate the proceedings.

With contributions from Mehdi Hasan in London, Michael Bolen in Toronto, Alexandre Boudet in Paris, Antonia Laterza in Rome, Daniel Basteiro in Madrid, Sandro Lutyens in Tunis, Daichi Ito in Tokyo, and Emily Swanson and Ryan Grim in Washington.



Syria War In August (Warning: Graphic Images)