WASHINGTON -- An imminent U.S. strike on Syrian government targets in response to the alleged gassing of civilians last week has the potential to draw the United States into the country's civil war, former U.S. officials said, warning that history doesn't bode well for such limited, retaliatory interventions.
The best historical parallels -- the 1998 cruise missile strikes on targets in Iraq, Afghanistan and Sudan -- are rife with unintended consequences and feature no success stories.
"The one thing we should learn is you can't get a little bit pregnant," said retired Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni, who was at the helm of U.S. Central Command when the Pentagon launched cruise missiles at suspected terrorist sites in Afghanistan and weapons facilities in Saddam Hussein's Iraq. "If you do a one-and-done and say you're going to repeat it if unacceptable things happen, you might find these people keep doing unacceptable things. It will suck you in."
Images of the corpses of civilians killed in last week's chemical attack in a Damascus suburb struck a powerful chord in Washington, where until now there has been little appetite for a military intervention. With U.S. Navy destroyers stationed in the Mediterranean, the White House is scrambling to assemble international support for a dayslong bombing campaign targeting military sites, which appears to have robust support from Congress.
The United States has at best a mixed record of success with such operations. In late August 1998, the Pentagon fired cruise missiles at suspected terrorist camps in Afghanistan and a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan that was presumed to be producing chemical weapons.
The strikes in Afghanistan failed to kill al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden or his top lieutenants. The one in Sudan became an embarrassment for the Pentagon because the intelligence that put a pharmaceutical factory on the target list turned out to be faulty.
In December 1998, the Clinton administration lobbed cruise missiles at military targets in Iraq in response to Hussein's refusal to comply with United Nations resolutions that condemned his weapons program. Former U.S. officials said neither operation dealt much of a strategic setback to the targets. But they enraged many in the Muslim world, prompting angry protests.
"The behavior of our adversaries did not change," said longtime U.S. diplomat Ryan Crocker, who was the U.S. ambassador in Syria at the time. "A couple of cruise missiles are not going to change their way of thinking."
In an operation some policy analysts have used as a template, the United States and NATO allies started a bombing campaign in 1999 in an effort to stop ethnic cleansing and drive Serbian forces from Kosovo.
U.S. diplomat Christopher Hill, dispatched as special envoy to Kosovo, said there was an expectation that U.S. military intervention would be short and decisive. Some thought the bombing campaign would last a few days, he said, but it dragged on for 78. "The problem is that people expect, when U.S. military assets are deployed, that we will do so until the regime goes away."