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 ageopolitical 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.
Time and unrelenting tragedy has allowed for increasing clarity of the dangers transcending borders and the illusion of geography. There are now well over seven thousand foreign fighters in the country, with hundreds of hardline Islamist Europeans able to move freely around Europe and potentially the rest of the world. As Senator Lindsey Graham recently warned: “Eventually you’ve got to confront them, so to me, it’s a choice of, do we hit them after they hit us, or do we hit them before they hit us?” Domestic and foreign jihadists are gaining significant battlefield experience, networking with ideologically driven groups, and attracting young men and women to their cause whom have fewer and fewer options by the day. Where and what these nonstate actors choose to do following any sort of conclusion to major hostilities should greatly concern the United States and its Western allies. This is a lesson the West has learned before, tragically so. Learning it again is a result every policy maker in Washington and London should be doing their utmost to avoid.
Regardless of how the conflict in Syria ends, these individuals, organizations, and ideologies may very well turn to examine who supported what side or whom failed to support the winners or losers. Arriving at justification for terrorism is never hard for an extremist to manage once they reach the point of no return, with zero options and nothing to lose. Preventing that point of no return should be a priority for US foreign policymakers. No engagement, or even ongoing limited engagement, suspends the ability to shape the narrative in a positive light for the West and the forces battling extremism around the world. A reassessment of the situation shows that not only is increased engagement necessary, but the United States and its Western allies should rally the international community to the defense of a common good. Targeted support, humanitarian aid, and asymmetrical operations to limit the Assad regime can both support favorable allies and protect innocent civilians.
In a first step, the West should make it abundantly clear that Assad’s days are numbered and the transfer of power is the only acceptable outcome for the United States and the international community. Additional intelligence support and aid to opposition forces, with significant increases based on measured results, may offer a way to support the underpinnings of a democratic civil society while mitigating a potentially extremist outcome. Second, an international cooperative effort to identify, disrupt and deny support to the most extreme groups on either end of the spectrum can encourage social and political moderation. Further development aid, humanitarian services and civilian assistance are major efforts that the majority of the population would benefit from; most especially women and children who will play decisive roles in the next generation of Syrian society.
To be sure, intervention has many different dimensions and increased engagement does not equate to invasion with thousands of American and British troops. Nor does it mean unquestioned support for ideologically extreme militias simply because they oppose a greater evil. The next generation of Syrians is looking for strong leadership and will turn to whomever can help them survive perpetual acts of genocide and tyrannical brutality. The question is, how much longer does the next generation actually have?
Julie Lenarz is the Executive Director of the Humanitarian Intervention Centre, fellow at The Institute for Middle Eastern Democracy and an adviser on Foreign and Security Policy. She tweets @MsIntervention. Michael Miner is a Teaching Fellow at Harvard University and Senior Fellow at the Humanitarian Intervention Centre. You can follow him on Twitter@CivisRepublica.