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A Retired U.S. Colonel on Syria and Iraq

As one of the brigade commanders who led thousands of soldiers during the invasion and first year of the occupation of Iraq in 2003-2004, it’s not clear to me what the legitimate U.S. military objective would be in any type of military attack on Syria.

Written by Ret. Col. Ted Spain Published on Read time Approx. 2 minutes

President Obama has talked about deterring and punishing Assad, but what does that achieve, if he remains in power? What if he is removed from power and the results are similar to the aftermath of us removing Saddam Hussein? I co-authored the book “Breaking Iraq – The Ten Mistakes That Broke Iraq,” where I wrote about my personal involvement in many of the mistakes made during that invasion.

It doesn’t appear we’ve learned our lesson, because we will likely eventually repeat many of those mistakes if we attack Syria, regardless of the initial size or type of attack.

We must have the right number and type of soldiers. In Iraq, we had an inadequate number of military and the wrong mix. In Syria, the local populace will want security, just as the Iraqi people did, and a major part of that will have to come from a legitimate Syrian police force. There will be a challenge in establishing the rule of law. And we must have the right military and civilian leadership.

Most military commanders, myself included, would like for the commander in chief to exhaust all elements of diplomatic, economic and informational power before resorting to the use of military power. That said, when military power is necessary, we ask for clear military objectives and the means/freedom to achieve those objectives.

Saying that we will not put boots on the ground is not wise. Few military objectives have ever been achieved by air power alone. I can’t imagine the safe removal or destruction of the chemical weapons without the use of U.S. citizens, be they federal employees, contractors or military service members. I also can’t imagine these U.S. citizens not being attacked, which would thus require some type of military response.

As a career soldier I understood, and supported, the idea that the military works for a “civilian leadership.” But it is the military commanders at all levels that are responsible for accomplishing the military mission, and bringing each soldier back home alive. Almost 4,500 U.S. servicemen and women died in Iraq, and 13 of them were under my command.

What have we achieved thus far in Iraq, 10 years after removing Saddam Hussein from power?  Violence in Iraq is at a seven-year high. Just as in Iraq and Afghanistan, the only solution in Syria is a diplomatic one, not a military one.

Assad is fighting for his very survival, and we should logically assume he will use all means necessary to stay in power.  Those means may involve Israel, Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Jordan and other countries, bringing even more instability to the region. In the military we have a term where we refer to the gradual increase of military power as “mission creep.” In Syria, a “mission creep” would most likely require additional military assets. The families of our servicemen should insist on being told, clearly, what the U.S. national interest is in attacking Syria.

War is a terrible thing. If we break Syria, we will own it, and we had better have a better plan for putting it back together again than we did in Iraq.

As we proved in Iraq, our military is not suited for nation building. In many ways, it is easier to win the war than to win peace. We need to have a plan for winning peace before we fire that first shot into Syria.

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