The gnawing necessity of U.S. engagement in the widening Syrian civil war has finally prompted President Barack Obama to request $500 million to equip and train the rebels.
What does this “major U-turn,” as The Wall Street Journal described it, represent in the context of the Obama administration’s overall Syria strategy?
For starters, it’s an unmistakable — if indirect — admission. It’s an admission that the tragedy in Syria has become so grim — and yes, threatening — that something must be done, even if it’s a political gambit to produce the illusion of meaningful action (this isn’t an assertion, but given Obama’s recalcitrant ambivalence toward Syria, it seems possible).
It’s also an admission that much more should have been done much sooner. A litany of dire predictions countered every suggestion of Western intervention in the early days of the Syrian conflict: It could become a sectarian civil war! Extremists could fill the power vacuum! It could destabilize the entire region! Thousands could perish!
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But all of these contingencies have been realized — to an extent that defies even the bleakest projections issued three years ago — in the absence of Western intervention. No one debates the designation of this conflict, which has stolen the lives of more than 150,000 people and left untold others maimed and dispossessed, as a civil war. Around half of the opposition is comprised of extremists, thousands of which have ripped through northern Iraq. And Jordan, a relatively stable U.S. ally, is inching into the ISIL’s (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) periphery.
Syria provides ISIL with its core territory — as well as its “capital,” Raqqa. It’s the perfect training ground, recruiting station and cross-border feeding tube for the delusional, parasitic citizens of the new “Caliphate.” Among these ranks are international terrorists who may return to their countries of origin and eagerly deploy their newfound talents — such as the Frenchman who, after spending some productive time in Syria, gunned down four people at the Jewish Museum in Brussels.
There are almost 3 million Syrian refugees seeking assistance throughout the region, putting immense pressure on Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, recently said, “The influx of a million refugees would be massive in any country. For Lebanon, a small nation beset by internal difficulties, the impact is staggering.”
It’s impossible to state with certainty what impact, say, no-fly-zones — or even a well-funded arming and training program — could have had in the early days of the war, but it’s difficult to imagine a scenario worse than the one we now face. Furthermore, the process of vetting, arming and training Syrian insurgents could take six to eight months — a break-in period that could have been streamlined by now had it been undertaken two or three years ago. The job of vetting potential recipients of aid will be particularly cumbersome and dangerous given the proportion of radical Islamists that now constitute the opposition.
At what point will Obama’s overarching strategy of disengagement be considered a failure? Does the world’s conscience — or sense of security — have a red line? It’s too easy to reflexively say, “Things would be worse if we were involved,” and it betrays a startling lack of self-criticism.
Look at what the United States stands to gain in Syria: The elimination of a major Iranian client regime, an opportunity to attack ISIL at the center of its depraved “Caliphate” (thereby stemming the flow of terrorists into Iraq) and a chance to reinforce our allies in one of the most important parts of the region.
Arguments about exactly how to use American power in the new Middle East will persist, as they should, but one fact needs to be faced honestly: The status quo is an unmitigated disaster, and the world’s indifference to it continues to insult and condemn the people of Syria.
Reach Matt Johnson, editorial page intern, at firstname.lastname@example.org.