Forget Cambodia


While I had warned that the Bush administration might come to regard Syria's behavior in Iraq as similar to Cambodia's behavior during the Vietnam War, it's a bit jarring to see that precise terminology now being used by U.S. officials. A New York Times piece today on growing tension between American and Syrian troops along the Syrian-Iraqi border, has this passage:

Increasingly, officials say, Syria is to the Iraq war what Cambodia was in the Vietnam War: a sanctuary for fighters, money and supplies to flow over the border and, ultimately, a place for a shadow struggle.

One might want to recall that American intervention in Cambodia was a disaster for the Cambodians, while doing virtually nothing to advance American interests. William Shawcross told the sordid tale in Sideshow: Kissinger, Nixon, and the Destruction of Cambodia. One reason the North Vietnamese weren't disturbed, but the Cambodians were, is that as American and South Vietnamese forces invaded Cambodia in April 1970, the North Vietnamese simply moved westwards, deeper into Cambodian territory.

Such a scenario wouldn't hold in Syria, not least because the insurgents entering Iraq from Syria are not a conventional military force. As U.S. officials mention Cambodia, they should (and maybe are) thinking of what the Turks did to Syria in 1998, when Turkish special forces routinely deployed deep into Syrian territory to attack bases of the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) of Abdullah Ocalan, particularly in the Kamishli area. At the time, the Syrians were using the PKK to ratchet up pressure on Turkey for a host of reasons, including a more equitable sharing of the Euphrates waters. The Turks threatened to attack Syria and then-President Hafez Assad buckled. Turkey then imposed the onerous Adana Agreement (in fact negotiated by the late Ghazi Kanaan, though signed by a more senior general), and Ocalan was forced to leave Syria, to be later captured in Africa by the Turks. That ended Syrian support for the PKK.

Whether the Bush administration can pull this off in Iraq is an open question. But Cambodia is hardly the model to emulate. No one has any interest in seeing Syria descend into the chaos of post-invasion Cambodia, which led to the takeover of power by the murderous Khmer Rouge. The Assads are not guarantors of stability, on the contrary, but what comes afterwards should be prepared very carefully.