Groundhog Day in Syria

In a 1993 classic movie, Bill Murray plays a weatherman who is given the assignment to view the annual awaking of the ground hog Punxsutawney Phil and finds himself living the same day over and over again. Today we are experiencing much the same thing in the Middle East, where we appear intent on repeating in Syria the mistakes we have made time and again in our attempts to intervene in that region.

Our political elite are living with ghosts of past empires as a guide to our destiny. With the collapse of the USSR and the lightening victory over Saddam Hussein in Kuwait, 1991 was the high water mark of our influence in the region. Otherwise, western meddling in Middle Eastern affairs has almost ended badly.


The Muslim Brotherhood, organized in Egypt in 1928 to remove the British from that nation, has spawned a worldwide collection of Islamist organizations that are determined to remove western presence from Muslim lands. The British left the Middle East in 1960, the same time the French were forced out of North Africa. After forcing the Russians out of Afghanistan in the early 1990s, Osama bin Laden announced his intention of driving the U.S. out of the region.

American action since 2000 has turned the Middle East and North Africa into a boiling caldron of hatred for the U.S. The region has spun out of our control, and attempts to impose western values onto Islam are inflaming the local populations.


On the pretext of finding weapons of mass destruction, we attacked Iraq. An estimated 100,000 Iraqi citizens were killed; about 2 million fled as refugees. With 4,000 U.S. dead; 30,000 maimed; and a loss of $1 trillion in treasure, we replaced a Sunni tyrant with a parliament dominated by the party of a firebrand Shia cleric who hates the U.S., has strong ties to Iran, and fought us with his Mahdi militia. Iraq is now on the cusp of civil war as Sunni militia are ratcheting up attacks against Shia.

Earlier, we forced elections in Lebanon that gave Shia Hezbollah control — and now Hezbollah militia are fighting for President Bashar Assad in Syria. By destroying Saddam Hussein we cleared the way for Iran to become the dominant military power in the region. Iran is now supplying elite Quds militia and arms to Syria through Shia controlled Iraq as well as Hezbollah militia who have joined Mr. Assad's army against the rebels that include a mix of secular Syrians and Sunni al-Qaida militia who have joined the battle. Iran also supports Hamas in Gaza and rebels in Yemen.

We supported the mujahedin against the Russians in Afghanistan. When they left, so did we; this provided the political vacuum that allowed the Taliban to rise. Al-Qaida set up operations as guests of the Taliban and planned the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks from Afghanistan. Since our invasion of that country, more than 2,000 U.S. troops have been killed; the cost is more than $500 billion. Taliban forces attack Kabul with impunity, and when we leave, they will return to power.

Pakistan provided sanctuary for Osama bin Laden for several years; the Pakistani people despise us for our drone attacks killing innocents, and segments of the Pakistan military and intelligence service support the Taliban. Saudi Wahhabites provide funds for religious schools in the Pakistan/Afghanistan border region, which teach hatred for the U.S. and provide thousands of Taliban recruits every year.

We fostered regime change in Libya and Egypt that gave the Muslim Brotherhood control in the latter and produced a gaggle of Islamic militias in the former. As a result of our action in Libya, loyalists to former dictator Moammar Gadhafi fled into the desert with massive weapons stores to join local political exiles. Foreign Islamist groups flooded into the region with Mali at the center, spreading out into Algeria, Mauritania, Niger, Chad and northern Nigeria. French Foreign Legion forces are now engaged in a protracted guerrilla war against Islamists across the Sahara.

After Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini died, a reformist, Mohammad Khatami, was elected president of Iran despite the resistance of the conservatives. Mr. Khatami made unprecedented overtures toward normalization of relations with the U.S. These efforts were rebuffed, and Iran was inexplicitly included in President George W. Bush's Axis of Evil. This finished Mr. Khatami politically; the conservatives won 70 percent of the Parliament seats in 2005, and hard liner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected president. In a landslide victory, moderate Hasan Rowhani has been elected to replace Mr. Ahmadinejad.

Russia supports Mr. Assad with weapons. If we become enmeshed in Syria, weapons we supply will end up with Islamists, and there is a distinct possibility that we or the Russians will make a mistake which involves the deaths of U.S. or Russian advisors at the hands of the other. After all, we bombed the Chinese embassy by mistake in Serbia.

Deposing Mr. Assad will lead to Muslim Brotherhood control of Syria and ultimately destabilize Jordan and Saudi Arabia. At this point, without outside influence the country will eventually become balkanized as a larger version of Lebanon or Libya with separate enclaves controlled by Mr. Assad, secular rebels and al-Qaida. Of much more significance is rapprochement with Iran. Normalization was possible under Mr. Khatami, and handled properly, relations with Mr. Rowhani will be the key to defusing a variety of conflicts in the region. We should not risk that prospect through another ill-conceived military adventure.


Charles Campbell, a resident of Woodstock, is a retired senior vice president of Gulf Oil Corp. His email is