WASHINGTON — An imminent U.S. strike on Syrian government targets in response to the alleged gassing of civilians last week has the potential to draw the United States into the country’s civil war, a former U.S. official said Tuesday, warning that history doesn’t bode well for such limited, retaliatory interventions.

The best historical parallels — the 1998 cruise missile strikes on targets in Iraq, Afghanistan and Sudan — are rife with unintended consequences and feature no success stories.

“The one thing we should learn is you can’t get a little bit pregnant,” said retired Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni, who was at the helm of U.S. Central Command when the Pentagon launched cruise missiles at suspected terrorist sites in Afghanistan and weapons facilities in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. “If you do a one-and-done and say you’re going to repeat it if unacceptable things happen, you might find these people keep doing unacceptable things. It will suck you in.”

The United States has at best a mixed record of success with such operations. In late August 1998, the Pentagon fired cruise missiles at suspected terrorist camps in Afghanistan and a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan that was presumed to be producing chemical weapons. The campaign, called Operation Infinite Reach, was launched in response to the bombings on Aug. 7, 1998, of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, which were the first al-Qaeda attacks on U.S. targets.

The strikes in Afghanistan failed to kill al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden or his top lieutenants. The one in Sudan became an embarrassment for the Pentagon because the intelligence that put a pharmaceutical factory on the target list turned out to be faulty.

In December of that year, the Clinton administration lobbed cruise missiles at military targets in Iraq in response to Hussein’s refusal to comply with United Nations resolutions that condemned Iraq’s weapons program. Former U.S. officials said neither operation dealt much of a strategic setback to the targets. But they enraged many in the Muslim world, prompting angry demonstrations, including an attempted siege of the U.S. Embassy in Damascus by a mob that later ransacked the ambassador’s residence.