Syria: The Wages of Inaction

It's far more than a humanitarian concern.

The unrest in Syria has quickly spiraled beyond a sectarian civil war and into a regional crisis. Two million refugees have poured into Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and Turkey at a rate surpassing several thousand a day, with more than 6.5 million displaced overall. Iran and Saudi Arabia are doing battle through proxy forces. Iraq is experiencing the worst eruption of violence in recent years with the resurrection of Al Qaeda. According to the United Nations, 84 percent of the 733 people killed in January were civilians. Hezbollah’s support for the Assad regime has led to a series of deadly suicide bombings in Lebanon by the Abdullah Azzam Brigades in an attempt to draw the country deeper into Syria’s bloody war. An Al Qaeda surge is viewed with great concern in Israel, and while the country has always been an integral part of the terrorists’ narrative, this escalating regional crisis puts Israel in the firing line.

Three years ago, President Obama and his foreign-policy team were right to be skeptical about forceful intervention and how that might compound an internal problem in lieu of any comprehensive international solution. The realist lens suggests underlying problems in Syria had little to do with the vital interests of the United States, and could only be solved by Syrians themselves. Limited engagement can also limit immediate security concerns for the United States and even work to an advantage. Equally, one could argue that intervention should have taken place long ago and that the West’s apathy has encouraged adversaries to push their agenda harder on all fronts. Continued inaction will result in long-term negative consequences that will compound US national-security challenges in the future. Escalating regional conflict composed of transnational actors is decidedly more dangerous to American interests than an internal civil war.

The realization that Syria constitutes not only a heartbreaking humanitarian crisis but also a geopolitical nightmare is finally hitting home. Behind closed doors at the Munich Security Conference, Secretary of State John Kerry admitted to a senior delegation of US Congressmen that his administration’s Syria policy is collapsing. Geneva II has reached a dead end before it even started and is unlikely to produce ground-changing results. The decommissioning of Assad’s chemical and biological weapons is moving forward painfully slow. To date, only four percent of the Priority One chemicals have been removed and even if the process is eventually successful, Assad will continue to slaughter with conventional weapons. Kerry went so far as to suggest that arming moderate rebel groups will be necessary to confront the real and direct threat of a growing terrorist presence. This has been a declared policy for some time, yet the promised US weapons never arrived and there has been little to no progress on this front.