The ghost of “Curveball” is haunting the Obama administration and undermining its efforts to marshal strong foreign and domestic support for military strikes on Syria.
Curveball was the code name given Iraqi defector Rafid Ahmed Alwan, who claimed in 1999 that Saddam Hussein had deployed mobile biological weapons labs to evade international detection of his manufacture of weapons of mass destruction. His testimony, even though viewed as dubious, was used by the George W. Bush administration to justify the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
As Americans and their allies debate the wisdom of making military strikes against the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad, the phony pretext for the Iraq invasion is being dredged up by those fearful of being lured into another protracted Middle East war.
Political and international security analysts concede that the conditions prompting Obama to push for punitive strikes on Assad’s forces are vastly different this time. Obama, who campaigned against his predecessor’s rush to wage costly, faraway wars, has made clear his reluctance to get involved in Syria’s nearly 2 1/2-year-old civil conflict, which has taken more than 100,000 lives.
Nor does Obama seek to topple Assad. Though despised by Western leaders and accused of savagery and war crimes, the Syrian autocrat would leave a dangerous power vacuum if he were ousted. That probably would lead to chaotic revenge attacks on Assad’s minority Alawite community, sectarian clashes between Shiites and Sunnis, and infighting among the disparate rebel groups, the stronger of which are aligned with Al Qaeda.
This time, unlike the 130,000 coalition troops Bush had massed to invade Iraq, any U.S. strike on Syria would be limited in scope and duration, Obama insisted Friday.
“We’re not considering any open-ended commitment. We’re not considering any boots-on-the-ground approach,” Obama said after the White House released its intelligence report claiming that Assad deployed chemical weapons in Damascus suburbs on Aug. 21, killing more than 1,400, including 426 children.
British lawmakers in the House of Commons pointed to the misleading intelligence used to justify the Iraq invasion in the volatile debate that preceded a Thursday night vote against Britain taking part in military sanctions on the Assad government.
British Prime Minister David Cameron, in urging Parliament to authorize British forces’ engagement, said he was “deeply mindful of the lessons of previous conflicts.”
“One thing is indisputable,” Cameron conceded. “The well of public opinion was well and truly poisoned by the Iraq episode and we need to understand the public skepticism."
He was unable to persuade lawmakers, though. They voted 285-272 against joining U.S. allies in any attack on Syria.
U.S. congressional leaders on both sides of the political aisle have also been urging a more cautious approach than was the case in 2003.
Bush sought and gained overwhelming support for the Iraq invasion from lawmakers, an outcome in doubt for Obama were he to ask for a vote. Congress is in recess until Sept. 9, and the White House has already employed language to suggest that Syria’s use of chemical weapons has demonstrated it is a danger to global peace.
The Constitution requires the president to seek congressional approval for an act of war, except when there is an imminent threat to U.S. security.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the California Democrat who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, gave a lukewarm assessment of the U.S. evidence that Assad carried out the chemical weapons attacks, saying only that it “points to” the Syrian leader.
House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) called on Obama to provide Congress with “legal justification for any military strike, the policy and precedent such a response would set and the objectives and strategy for any potential action.”
Even U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry felt compelled Friday to draw distinctions between the grounds for attacking Syria and the corrupted intelligence behind the Iraqi invasion.
“Our intelligence community has carefully reviewed and re-reviewed information regarding this attack and I will tell you it is more than mindful of the Iraq experience. We will not repeat that moment,” Kerry said in disclosing the broad findings of a U.S. investigation of who was behind the suspected sarin gas attacks.
Arab countries were almost unanimously opposed to the Iraq invasion. But the Arab League this time has said it holds Assad accountable for the illegal weapons use, although it called for first pursuing a U.N. Security Council mandate for sanctions. That was attempted by Britain on Wednesday but thwarted by veto-wielding Russia, Syria’s most influential ally and protector.
Political and military analysts agree there are major differences in both the motivation and justification for attacking Syria than was the case for invading Iraq.
“The big, overriding factor is that the United States doesn’t want to get dragged into this. Whatever type of strike is made, this has to be it, we’re not going to get sucked into this in the long run,” Thomas H. Henriksen, a senior fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution with expertise in insurgencies and rogue states, said of Syria’s bloody civil war. “This is not the thin end of the wedge coming in to open up another land war for the United States.”
A foreign correspondent for 25 years, Carol J. Williams traveled to and reported from more than 80 countries in Europe, Asia, the Middle East and Latin America.