Red Lines In Messy War

Steven Coll, the Dean of Columbia school of Journalism, argues in the latest New Yorker magazine that even if the situation in Syria lacks clarity, the red line of chemical attacks is certain. Coll talks to host Robert Siegel about the similarities and differences between Syria and Iraq.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

One element of the current discourse over Syria is Iraq. Say Syria, people think Iraq. Say Bashar al-Assad, people think Saddam Hussein. Here's British MP Brooks Newmark last week, committing a common slip of the tongue.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

BROOKS NEWMARK: We have to deal with what we face today. Today, we have witnessed strong evidence that Saddam Hussein has used chemical weapons on his own people. In my view - and I've just come back from the Syrian border...

SIEGEL: And here's Syria's foreign minister saying that he has seen U.S. intelligence before when he represented Syria on the U.N. Security Council...

(SOUNDBITE OF INTERVIEW)

FAISAL MEKDAD: Secretary Powell came and showed us this white bottle.

JEREMY BOWEN: This was 2003, just before the invasion of Iraq.

MEKDAD: Yes.

SIEGEL: And John Kerry defending the care that U.S. intelligence has taken to review and re-review its information about a Syrian chemical weapons attack.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

SECRETARY JOHN KERRY: And I will tell you it has done so more than mindful of the Iraq experience. We will not repeat that moment.

SIEGEL: How comparable are Syria today and Iraq 10 years go? How comparable are the questions posed to U.S. policymakers. Well, journalist Steve Coll, who's now dean of the Columbia University School of Journalism, writes about some similarities in the current issue of The New Yorker and joins us now. Welcome to the program once again.

STEVE COLL: Thanks, Robert. Thanks for having me.

SIEGEL: When it comes to the use of poison gas, if we looked for the rare, recent precedent of its use, it would be Iraq in the late 1980s. Remind us what happened.

COLL: Well, Saddam Hussein's Iraq was at war with Iran, and toward the end of that war, the Iraqis decided to start gassing the Iranians, and it worked. Iraq sort of was able to hold the line. And then the Iraqi regime was inspired to take the lessons it had learned about the tactical value of chemical weapons, and it used them in a brutal campaign against its own Kurdish minority to clear out Kurdish separatist rebels from villages, ultimately claiming tens of thousands of lives overall, but many thousands directly by gassing.

SIEGEL: The use of poison gas against the Kurds was, to put it mildly, widely publicized, and there was much talk about it at the time, but not great consequences for Saddam Hussein - at that time, at least.

COLL: Really no consequences, and the United States knew what was going on throughout. And, in fact, it was the policy of the Reagan administration during that phase of the Iran-Iraq war to tilt toward Saddam Hussein on the grounds that he was a secular bulwark against the Iranian Revolution. And once he started gassing his own people in Kurdish areas, the United States still sat on its hands, again thinking of Saddam as a source of stability in the region.

Now, of course, he belied that policy in August of 1990 when he invaded Kuwait and set off the Gulf War. That was when the United States finally recognized that tolerating his abuses was not a strategy promoting stability, but one that was only encouraging his aggression.

SIEGEL: Iraq's sectarian struggles nearly broke that country off after the U.S. invasion. Today, it's a country regarded as friendly to the Iranians who are no great friends to the U.S. Could destabilizing Syria lead either to that country's breakup or to it becoming friendly with al-Qaida, who are even less friendly to the U.S.?

COLL: That's certainly a possible outcome of the triumph of the rebels over the Assad regime. Of course, the status quo doesn't look very rosy either. In Iraq's case, passivity about Saddam Hussein's aggression and his war crimes against his own people created a catastrophic, strategic failure for the United States. It encouraged Saddam to invade Kuwait, which set off a whole chain of events in the Middle East that were not favorable to the United States. So passivity failed and then the invasion failed. And it strengthened Iran in the region, precisely at a time when we were concerned about Iran undermining our allies and pursuing nuclear weapons.

The Middle East again and again produces cascading effects from its own internal conflicts and outside intervention in those conflicts. The lesson of Iraq, however, does suggest that there are risks in passivity just as there are risks in action.

SIEGEL: Steve Coll, thank you very much for talking with us.

COLL: Thanks for having me, Robert.

SIEGEL: Steve Coll writes about Syria and chemical weapons in the current issue of The New Yorker. He's currently the dean of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

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