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Zeller: Apply the Lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan to Any Syrian Intervention

Thomas Jefferson wrote that “the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of tyrants.” In the latest escalation of the yearlong Syrian civil war, Syrian government helicopter gunships and warplanes bombarded Damascus and Aleppo. When “leaders” resort to using overwhelming violence to “lead” their people, we must brand them tyrants and judge them no longer fit to lead.

Does Jefferson compel us to exercise a moral obligation to militarily intervene in the Syrian civil war?

We might strongly want to intervene. But the region Syria’s located in is a tinderbox, so we should be very wary. In addition, those who argue for the United States to intervene need to answer the question: If we do so, how should we proceed, and what is the plan for the days after the guns fall silent?

I spent nearly a year fighting in Afghanistan. I’ve seen war up close and personal, and it isn’t glorious. War is brutal, horrible, and nightmarish — a scar worn with pride, even as it defaces.

As a veteran of the war in Afghanistan and a former congressional candidate, these days I’m often asked if I think the United States should intervene militarily in Syria.

Honestly, I don’t know.

But if our leaders are considering such an intervention, here are the points they need to consider: Recent conflicts in the Balkans, Kosovo and the Israeli-Hezbollah war of 2006 taught us that air superiority alone (i.e., bombing into submission) cannot win, prevent or stop a conflict. Only ground forces can halt mass murder.

Our leaders must not lose sight of the volatility of the region and especially Iran’s response to the potential loss of its ally Bashar al-Assad. Any military action in Syria must account for an inevitable Iranian response.

Our experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan taught us that the post-conflict phase of war is equally — if not more — important than the combat phase. Any American military intervention must be immediately followed by a serious effort in post-conflict reconstruction (i.e., nation building) simply to prevent a collapse of the post-conflict society (as occurred in Iraq).

Moreover, a post-conflict plan for Syria must not rely on complete organizational turnover every 365 days — as is the case with our civilian and military deployment schedule in Afghanistan. War ends when the fighting stops, not when one’s deployment comes to an end.

Although al-Qaida uses the Syria conflict as a means of transporting people to fight the Assad regime — much as it did against the Soviets in Afghanistan — Syria is vastly different from Afghanistan and will thus become a vastly different conflict with its own strategy, goals and lessons.

Syria maintains a modern and literate population, is in the infancy of its civil war, fields a competent and robust conventional military, and maintains a significant stockpile of chemical weapons. Syria also has the unwavering support of Russia and Iran — providing it with vital lifelines. Thus, any American strategy must successfully end foreign support for the Assad regime and adequately secure Syria’s chemical weapons before they fall into the hands of terrorists rallying to fight the Assad government.

Thus, if we choose to militarily intervene in Syria, we must do so with ground forces, account for Iranian retaliation, end foreign assistance to the Assad government, secure its chemical weapons, address a potentially resurgent regional al-Qaida threat, and arrive to the fight with a competent and adequately resourced post-conflict plan.

And we must apply the ultimate lesson of Iraq and Afghanistan — for our efforts to succeed, we must ask the local population what they want, help them address those needs in a timely and efficient fashion, and leave our experts in place long enough to see the fighting to its end.

Finally, should we think that our Libyan solution possesses an adequate course of action, I’d ask you to take a visit to Benghazi and tell me if you feel America and democracy won. Yes, we got rid of a horrible tyrant, but at what cost?

Matt Zeller is the author of “Watches Without Time: An American Soldier in Afghanistan.” He was the Democratic candidate for the House in New York’s 29th district in 2010.

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