On Syria, a Drumbeat With Some Echoes of Iraq

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WASHINGTON -- A grim-faced secretary of state reading a bill of charges against a rogue Arab leader. The White House promising intelligence that will provide proof about weapons of mass destruction. Frenetic efforts to piece together a coalition of the willing. Breathless news reports about imminent bombing raids.

The days since the deadly chemical weapons attack last week in Syria carry an eerie echo of the tense days leading up to the American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Some veterans of that period are expressing qualms that this time, too, the war drums are beating too loudly.

"There's some risk," said Thomas Fingar, a fellow at Stanford University's Institute for International Studies. "Political pressure is a factor. It appears to me that the situation has crossed a tipping point." In short, he said, the case for military action has moved so rapidly that it has become difficult for those counseling restraint.

Mr. Fingar has firsthand experience of these situations. He was the head of the State Department's intelligence bureau, which dissented from the Bush administration's intelligence reports on Saddam Hussein's nuclear weapons program. Not properly scrutinized or challenged, that faulty intelligence paved the road to war a decade ago.

In the case of Syria, there is little doubt that chemical weapons were used on a large scale on the outskirts of Damascus on Aug. 21. But Mr. Fingar and other experts predicted that it would be difficult, if not impossible, for the administration to produce definitive evidence that President Bashar al-Assad ordered the attack.

There are other possible situations, analysts said, like a rogue military commander who went beyond his orders, or a military unit that intended a smaller attack but miscalculated.

"The Syrian case involves the empirical issue of whether chemical weapons were used and an analytical judgment about who used them," Mr. Fingar said. "It's very different than Iraq."

There are other differences, of course. The most obvious is that President Obama is a reluctant warrior, while his predecessor, George W. Bush, was anything but. The Obama administration has so far sketched out a war plan that is most remarkable for how narrowly it is drawn.

It would most likely take the form of one or two days of cruise missile strikes from ships in the eastern Mediterranean, not a sustained air campaign, let alone the imposition of a no-fly zone that would require many aircraft over many weeks or months. The administration's goal is not to oust Mr. Assad, but merely to punish the government for using poison gas on its own population and to try to stop it from happening again.

Nor would a strike be aimed at altering the course of Syria's two-year-old civil war. White House officials said Mr. Obama remained convinced that intervening more broadly in the conflict would cause more problems in the region than it would solve.

Unlike Iraq in 2003, the triggering event in Syria a decade later is not a shaky argument that the government possesses weapons of mass destruction, but a huge rocket assault that left hundreds of victims convulsing and gasping for breath, glassy-eyed and foaming at the mouth -- all classic symptoms of a reaction to poison gas. Video images of the carnage were posted on YouTube, while the aid group Doctors Without Borders issued a report based on firsthand accounts from medics at the overwhelmed hospitals.

"These all strongly indicate that everything these images are already screaming at us is real, that chemical weapons were used in Syria," Secretary of State John Kerry said on Monday.

Mr. Kerry did not show any of those pictures, unlike his predecessor Colin L. Powell, who in February 2003 displayed satellite photographs, played intercepts of conversations between Iraqi officials, and brandished a vial of white powder in his futile effort to persuade the United Nations Security Council to coalesce behind the invasion of Iraq.

Such an elaborate campaign is not necessary in this case, administration officials argued, because the evidence is already overwhelming and the scope of the proposed response is more limited.

Still, the White House faces an American public considerably more skeptical about intervention in Syria than it was about Iraq. The feverish atmosphere of the years after the Sept. 11 attacks has given way to a country exhausted after more than a decade of war.

Mr. Bush obtained strong Congressional backing for the war in Iraq, but now even the Republican Party is split between hawks like Senator John McCain of Arizona, who advocates forceful intervention, and neo-isolationists like Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, who argues that the United States has no business getting entangled in the Middle East. At this point the bulk of Republican members of Congress are skeptical of taking military action.

On Tuesday, the Republican chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Representative Ed Royce of California, put the White House on notice that it needed to make a persuasive case for war this time.

"Any U.S. military action could bring serious consequences or further escalation," Mr. Royce said in a statement. "The president should be making the case to the American public, and his administration should come to Congress to explain their plans."

In the coming days, administration officials said, they will present intelligence that they say reinforces the documentary evidence that the Syrian government carried out the attack. The material is likely to include intercepted radio communications of Syrian commanders -- much as General Powell played intercepts of exchanges between Iraqi officials at the United Nations.

Syria, weapons inspectors said, is more skilled at covering its tracks than Iraq was. Olli Heinonen, a former inspector for the International Atomic Energy Agency, recalled his frustrated efforts to investigate whether Syria had developed a nuclear reactor -- destroyed by Israel in an airstrike in 2007 -- with technology supplied by North Korea.

Thwarted at every step by the Syrian authorities, Mr. Heinonen said the agency never uncovered a smoking gun that linked North Korea to the facility. But he said the circumstantial evidence was overwhelming. "When you put all those pieces of the puzzle together," he said, "it was just consistent."

As Mr. Obama makes his case over the coming days, he is likely to fall back on a similar argument.

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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