WASHINGTON — The Obama administration, trying to avoid getting drawn deeper into Syria's civil war, has pointed to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 as a symbol of what can go wrong when America's military wades into Middle East conflicts.
But experts say the White House is looking at the wrong Iraq war, especially as the U.S. reluctantly considers a no-fly zone over Syria to stop President Bashar Assad from continuing to use his air power to crush rebel forces or kill civilians.
A no-fly zone is a territory over which warring aircraft are not allowed to fly. The U.S. and international allies have enforced them in several military conflicts over the past two decades.
When he took office in 2009, President Barack Obama promised to end the U.S. war in Iraq as an example of refocusing on issues that had direct impact on Americans. By the time the U.S. military withdrew from Iraq in 2011, almost 4,500 American troops and more than 100,000 Iraqis had died. The war toppled Saddam Hussein but also sparked widespread sectarian fighting and tensions that still simmer.
But when considering a no-fly zone, experts point to 1992, a year after the Gulf War. That's when the U.S. imposed a weakly enforced no-fly zone over southern Iraq and could not prevent Saddam, a Sunni Muslim, from persecuting and killing hundreds of thousands of Shiites whom he viewed as a political threat.
That failure is now being used as a case in point of why the U.S. should or shouldn't police the Syrian sky to prevent Assad from accelerating a two-year death toll that last week reached 93,000.
The White House is undecided on whether it will impose a no-fly zone over Syria, as some have demanded. Egypt's president, Mohammed Morsi, on Saturday called for a U.N. endorsed no-fly zone.
"We've rushed to war in this region in the past. We're not going to do it here," Obama's chief of staff, Denis McDonough, said Sunday on CBS' "Face the Nation."
Vali Nasr, a Middle East expert and dean of the Johns Hopkins' School of Advanced International Studies, argued for a no-fly zone "to prevent Assad from completely dominating this war for all practical purposes. And we need to create a no-fly zone to create a safe zone for refugees that Assad can't reach."
Nasr, who held a senior State Department job during the first two years of the Obama administration, said in an interview Friday that there are risks, "but perhaps the risks are exaggerated. And what it showed in Iraq is that it does not have to be a slippery slope into a larger war."
On the flip side, said retired Navy Adm. William Fallon, "there's no way to do this in a standoff — 'We're just here to help, not going to get our hands dirty.'"
Fallon, the former head of U.S. Central Command who helped draw up and carry out the 1992 no-fly-zone in Iraq, said the challenge "is that you'd better be prepared for escalation and expansion of mission."
"The likely expansion will be providing air support for guys on the ground," said Fallon, now on the board of directors at the American Security Project, a nonpartisan think tank started by Secretary of State John Kerry when Kerry was a senator.
Last Thursday, the White House deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes announced the Obama administration has agreed, after months of hesitation, to start supplying the rebels with upgraded military aid. That decision came as a result of stronger intelligence indicating that Assad has used chemicals weapons against his people multiple times this year.
Rhodes would not detail the type of aid. But military officials and experts said it probably would include small-arms weapons, shoulder-fired anti-tank grenades and ammunition.
That would mark the White House's first lethal shipment to Syria. Until now, the administration has mostly supplied the rebels with military equipment, such as body armor and communications devices, and humanitarian aid to the Syrian people.
Obama has not ruled out imposing a no-fly zone in Syria, Rhodes said.
But, Rhodes said, "people need to understand that not only are there huge costs associated with the no-fly zone, not only would it be difficult to implement, but the notion that you can solve the very deeply rooted challenges on the ground in Syria from the air are not immediately apparent."