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Syria: Lessons from History

Two historic examples of U.S. action vs. inaction may be instructive for Syria now.

August 31, 2013

Credit: Anton Balazh - Shutterstock

In his considerations on Syria, President Obama is looking at historical guidance from past conflicts in evaluating his “all options are bad” situation today. Two examples that have been less discussed in the news lately are worth recalling, both instructive when assessing the unintended consequences of action vs. inaction.

Action: Is Syria like Afghanistan in the 1980s?

During the nine-year war between insurgents trying to overthrow the Soviet puppet regime in Afghanistan and Soviet forces, the U.S. openly supported the best-organized group of insurgents, the Mujahedeen.

The withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan in 1989 eventually lead to the Taliban takeover, one of history’s most brutal regimes, which rose out of the ranks of the U.S.-supported Mujahedeen.

Of course, it was the Taliban who played host to al-Qaeda as Osama bin-Laden planned his deadly 9/11 attacks on the U.S. Could U.S. intervention in Syria and aiding the rebels inadvertently lead to a similar outcome?

Inaction: Or is Syria more like Iran in the final years under Shah Reza Pahlavi in the late 1970s?

During those years, the U.S. supported the Shah against growing public opposition in Iran. The U.S. government failed early on to actively support alternative regime options that would have been secular in nature, but less inclined to continue the Shah’s oppression.

The belated withdrawal of support for the Shah gave the best-organized opposition, Islamic clerics under the leadership of Ayatollah Khomeini, an insurmountable advantage to gather the Iranian people behind it in 1979. Could a further delay of action against Assad bring about an al-Qaeda led Syria as the only “organized” alternative?

In both cases policy decisions of action vs. inaction were dictated by presumed U.S. national security interests. However, these two examples also clearly underline how treacherous such dictates can be without considering the potential for unintended consequences of one’s actions.


Is Syria like 1980s Afghanistan? Or is Syria more like late 1970s Iran under Shah Reza Pahlavi?