In a nutshell, there are two important lessons to learn from the experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan.
US must lead but not go it alone: Going it largely alone was one of the biggest mistakes the Bush administration made in Iraq. While it wasn't technically a unilateral war, as a number of nations did sign up, the fact was that the war was launched in direct confrontation with the prevailing position in the international community. The whole "Old Europe" vs. "New Europe" configuration the Bush administration pushed did damage well beyond the Iraq war. Even in the Afghanistan war, for which there was greater international support, the Bush administration initially limited NATO and other allies' roles opting for exclusive control over capacity-enhancing partnership.
In the Syria case it has been less the United States than Russia out of step with prevailing multilateral sentiment. Russia has used its UN Security Council veto to block one effort after another to bring UN legitimacy and capacity to bear on stopping the war in Syria and moving toward a viable political transition. This has been despite broad support from a majority of UN member nations and calls for UN action by the Secretary-General, the High Commissioner for Human Rights and other key officials.
In that context the broad-based Friends of Syria coalition, with over 90 countries as well as such key regional organizations as the Arab League, Gulf Cooperation Council and the European Union represented, has a credible claim to legitimacy. In working to put together this coalition the Obama administration has shown that it has learned the counterproductivity of unilateralism lesson of Iraq. Forging genuine partnerships with other nations is not about where one leads from (as in the "leading from behind" caricaturization). Rather it's about leading for results.
To get those results, though, the Obama administration must step up its leadership efforts. The Syrian war must be ended and the political transition begun soon.
Diplomacy vs military
Diplomatic more than military strategy: While much of the debate of late has been about military measures, diplomacy is the key. UN Security Council authorization remains optimal. Recent talks between US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian President Vladimir Putin gave some signs of progress. But similar pledges to move forward have been made before to no avail. And rumors abound that Russia may be going ahead with a sale of S-300 air defense batteries to Syria.
This is where others in the Friends of Syria coalition can bring pressure to bear. With oil and gas accounting for 20-25 percent of Russian GDP, 65 percent of total exports and 30 percent of government budget revenue, a threat from Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other Arab OPEC members to increase oil production enough to bring down world oil prices could provide its own incentive. This doesn't have to be a publicly delivered threat, just a credible one.
Even if there is a Russian shift, it is not a given that Moscow can deliver the Assad regime. Here is where increased military assistance to the Syrian opposition can help. The Asad regime keeps giving indications that it will not stop its attacks on its own people as long as it calculates that the military balance is in its favor. Increased military capacity for the opposition can help shift this balance. In this respect it can be helpful as a tactical move.
But not only are there the concerns about weapons getting in the wrong hands, or even being in what seem the "right" hands now but may not be later. More fundamental are the lessons of Iraq where even overwhelming initial military success was not sufficient for achieving strategic objectives, and of Afghanistan where military success has been so elusive despite all sorts of formidable weaponry and other military capabilities. Moreover, the American public, let alone European and other publics, is not inclined to support yet another major military commitment in the Middle East.
Time running out
There is not a lot of time to waste. If Russia remains intransigent, more will need to be done through the Friends of Syria. Better that the proposed conference occur soon. And it must do more than the standard communiqué and promise to keep consulting. It must put forward a diplomatic formula that in short order can start winding down the war and starting a political transition process.
While there may be room for some compromise on a process that includes President Bashar al-Assad and key members of his regime in the initial consultations, it's hard to see a formula that allows him and others most implicated in atrocities against the Syrian people anything other than a protected exit. The Alawite minority as a bloc needs assurances about their security going forward, as do other ethnic and confessional groups. With all the violence that has been inflicted, a peaceful transition will be exceedingly hard. But every effort should be made, including a UN peacekeeping or political observer force.
As hard as the Syria problem is today, it will be harder tomorrow. More risk of setting off a regional conflict. More risk of (further?) chemical weapons use. More children whose lives are torn asunder. The lessons of past policy failures need to be learned, by the United States and the international community, and applied strategically to the Syrian crisis.
Bruce W. Jentleson is Professor of Public Policy at Duke University. From 2009-11 he served as a Senior Advisor at the US State Department.