In recent years Pentagon contingency planners have imported, from social science, the concept of the “wicked” problem—that theoretical future security crisis that defies solution. Today that future security crisis is here, and its name is Syria. How important is the eventual denouement of this catastrophic civil war? Apparently, important enough to draw major security responses from Iran, Saudi Arabia, Russia and Qatar, Shiite Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon and Sunni militant Islamists from across the Arab world.
Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan face major humanitarian relief burdens for displaced Syrian civilians, fleeing at a rate of more than five thousand per day. Iraq’s tenuous internal cohesion is being stressed by the sectarian breakup next door. France and Britain are exerting what leverage they can in domains they once controlled. Israel—after decades of fending off conventional and nuclear dangers from the regimes of Hafez al Assad and his son Bashar—now must contemplate a future northern neighbor in which Hezbollah may be further strengthened, a vengeful Sunni Muslim Brotherhood could vie for power long denied by the Alawite regime, and even jihadist Jabhat Al Nusra fighters from across the Arab world will seek a new operational base.
For the United States, Syria has long held strategic importance. During the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, President Nixon escalated the nuclear-alert level to DEFCON 3 to deter Moscow from sending Soviet troops to bolster Syrian forces fighting against Israel; Moscow was deterred. During President Reagan's intervention of U.S. Marines along with French, Italian and British forces seeking to stabilize Beirut after Israel's 1982 incursion against the PLO, Syria served as a staging ground for young Iranian fighters sent into Lebanon's Bekaa Valley to arm and train Shiite Lebanese members of the new militant Hezbollah organization, which then launched catastrophic truck-bombing attacks on U.S. diplomats and Marines in Lebanon. Kissinger's famous dictum, "No war without Egypt, no peace without Syria," is surely no less true now that Syria is engulfed in sectarian conflict.
The Obama administration, however, appears unconvinced of the impact Syria's crisis could have on future U.S. security interests. Obama has long been critical of the way President George W. Bush engaged forces in long and costly interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan after 9/11, and no longer refers to a Global War on Terrorism. Today, as the death toll surpasses one hundred thousand and militant jihadists flock into Syria, General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, warns that any U.S. military mission beyond humanitarian assistance, provision of ‘non-lethal’ support and positioning of limited defensive assets with neighboring allies could require hundreds of combat platforms, thousands of troops and billions of dollars.
Obama administration spokespersons cite humanitarian aid to refugees in Turkish and Jordanian camps and 'non-lethal' assistance to opposition forces as evidence that the United States is seriously engaged in dealing with this crisis. Beyond the halls of government in Washington, however, the perception is quite the opposite. Clearly, the United States is expected to do more.
Two years ago, on August 18, 2011, President Obama said, "[T]he time has come for President Assad to step aside." Yet many observers believe Assad's position has only solidified, not weakened, in the interim. One year ago, on August 20, 2012, President Obama declared, "[A] red line for us is...chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus." Yet no such change seems to have followed the revelation on June 13, 2013 by Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes that the U.S. intelligence community, with "high confidence," assesses that “[T]he Assad regime has used chemical weapons, including sarin...against the opposition multiple times in the last year."