Only a year after considering bombing Assad, the US is now launching airstrikes within Syria on his enemies – Islamic State. Dozens of jihadists have allegedly been killed by the strikes, carried out by the US together with the Gulf States and Jordan. As pundits and experts explore every possible angle and effect of the latest strikes, it’s worth taking a look back at some of the previous US interventions in the Middle East – and whether they lived up to their ambitious aims.
When the Prime Minister of Iran decided to nationalise the country’s oil, the US supported a coup that removed him and put the Shah back in power. The Shah then proceeded to oppress the population leading to the Iranian Revolution of 1979.
The result: The coup gave the US an ally for 26 years – but the anti-American feeling in the Islamic Republic of Iran can be largely traced back to this coup. It was one of the US’s biggest mistakes.
After the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan the US started arming and financing the militant mujahideen fighting the Soviets. While this turned Afghanistan into the Soviet Vietnam, the mujahideen later used the weapons to tear the country apart in civil war – and some of these fighters would later end up attacking the US itself.
The result: While the US achieved their aim of humiliating the Soviet Union, the long term effects of this intervention backfired spectacularly.
After Israel’s invasion of Lebanon ended with the massacre of over a thousand civilians at Sabra and Chatilla, the US and other Western nations put a military force in place. Their aim: to support the Lebanese army (basically just another civil war militia at the time) and impose peace. Unfortunately the Shi’a population saw the US as their enemy, and killed 299 American and French soldiers in two barracks bombings. The US responded by withdrawing – but not before bombarding the country from warships stationed off shore.
The result: The US was just another side in Lebanon’s horrific civil war. In the long run they had no impact on the conflict, and failed to achieve their vague aims.
Iraq: Gulf War 1991
Following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, the US and its allies heavily bombed Baghdad before driving the Iraqis out of Kuwait in one of the most one-sided victories of the 20th century. The victory seemed at the time to be the perfect example of the new American hegemony. However, the US made the mistake of first encouraging the Shi’a population to rise up, then standing by as they were slaughtered by Saddam Hussein.
The result: While the US achieved its aims easily, their mistake with the Shi’a would come back to bite them during the invasion of Iraq, when the Shi’a were decidedly unfriendly towards the Americans.
Iraq War 2003-2010
Everyone knows this story. The invasion of Iraq drew jihadists from around the region, destabilised the region by giving Iran a new ally, led to the deaths of thousands upon thousands of civilians and enabled the rise of Islamic State in Iraq.
The result: The US failed to achieve their direct aim of a stable Iraqi state, and in the long term they contributed to destabilising the Middle East.
Bombing of Iraq and Syria 2014-?
This could possibly be the trickiest situation ever facing the US. There are no good options and nearly all of their previous interventions have led to long term problems. As expert Aaron Miller points out, there is no ‘middle path’. The US can choose between an all-out effort to ‘fix’ Iraq and Syria and destroy IS, requiring immense amounts of money and force, or it can settle for degrading IS’s ability to spread further and attack the West. Neither of these options are particularly attractive – the first is too much and the second is too little. The ‘Goldilocks option’ is yet to be found. Without it, IS will remain a threat to the Middle East for a long time to come.