The Dangerous Price of Ignoring Syria

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in The International Herald Tribune.

President Obama has doggedly resisted American involvement in Syria. The killing of over 70,000 people and the plight of over a million refugees have elicited sympathy from the White House but not much more. That is because Syria challenges a central aim of Obama’s foreign policy: shrinking the U.S. footprint in the Middle East and downplaying the region’s importance to global politics. Doing more on Syria would reverse the U.S. retreat from the region.

Since the beginning of Obama’s first term, the administration’s stance as events unfolded in the Middle East has been wholly reactive. This “lean back and wait” approach has squandered precious opportunity to influence the course of events in the Middle East. There has been no strategy for capitalizing on the opportunity that the Arab Spring presented, or for containing its fallout — the Syrian crisis being the worst case to date. The president rewarded Burmese generals with a six-hour visit for their willingness to embrace reform, but he has not visited a single Arab country that went through the Arab Spring.

Obama sees Syria as a tragic humanitarian crisis without obvious strategic implications for the United States. “How do I weigh tens of thousands who’ve been killed in Syria versus the tens of thousands who are currently being killed in the Congo?” he asked in a New Republic interview in January. When the president visited the region last month he chose to focus on the Arab-Israeli peace process rather than Syria. The peace process is now at the top of Secretary of State John Kerry’s agenda.

The plight of Palestinians is a perennial concern, but it is in Syria that the future of the region hangs in the balance. Choosing the peace process over Syria underscores not the administration’s interest in the Middle East but its determination to look past it.

Washington has wasted precious time in using diplomatic, economic and military levers to influence the course of events in Syria. That neglect has allowed the conflagration to rage at great human cost, radicalizing the opposition and putting at risk U.S. allies across the region.

America cannot and should not decide the fate of the Middle East, but it should be clear about its stakes there, and not shy away from efforts to at least nudge events in more favorable directions as this critical region faces momentous choices. A “lean back and wait” posture toward unfolding events is dangerous.

The paroxysm of violence in Syria is expected to kill tens of thousands more and produce as many as three million refugees by the year’s end. That is a humanitarian tragedy to be sure, but one with immediate strategic consequences. American insouciance in the face of that devastation is fomenting anti-Americanism. The waves of refugees will constitute an unstable population that will be a breeding ground for extremism and in turn destabilize the countries where they take refuge. Syria’s neighbors are not equipped to deal with a humanitarian disaster on this scale.

The longer the devastation goes on the more difficult it will be to put Syria back together, and failing to do so will leave a dangerous morass in the heart of the Middle East, a failed state at war with itself where extremism and instability will fester and all manner of terrorists and Al Qaeda affiliates will find ample space, resources and recruits to menace the region and world.

Worse yet, the conflict in Syria could spill over its borders. Syria has become ground zero in a broader conflict that pits Shiites against Sunnis and shapes the larger regional competition for power between Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Syria’s paroxysms if allowed to drag on could potentially spread far and wide and even change the map of the region. America may think it does not have any interests in Syria, but it has interests everywhere the Syrian conflict touched.

Lebanon and Iraq are each deeply divided along sectarian lines, and both countries teeter on a knife’s edge as tensions rise between their ascendant Shiite populations who fear a setback if Bashar al-Assad falls, and the minority Sunnis in their own countries who support Syria’s Sunni-led opposition. Sectarian tensions stretch from Lebanon and Iraq through the Gulf countries of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain and on to Pakistan where sectarian violence has exploded into the open.

It is time America takes the lead in organizing international assistance to refugees. America should not hide behind the Russian veto. It should pursue a concerted diplomatic strategy in support of arming the rebels and imposing a no-flight zone over Syria. That would not only hamper Assad’s ability to fight, it would allow refugees to remain within Syria’s borders, thus reducing pressure on neighboring countries.

It is time the U.S. took over from Qatar and Saudi Arabia in organizing the Syrian opposition into a credible political force — failure to do that accounts for the chaos that has paralyzed the group. There are powerful economic sanctions that the U.S. could use to cripple the Assad regime.

Finally, America should build ties with the Free Syrian Army with the goal of denying extremist groups the ability to dominate the armed resistance and gaining influence with groups that will dominate Syria’s future. It was failing to build those ties in Afghanistan that allowed the resistance groups who opposed the Soviet Union to disintegrate into the Taliban and Al Qaeda.

The Syrian crisis has become a Gordian knot that cannot be easily disentangled. As daunting as the crisis looks, there is a cost to inaction — in human suffering, regional instability and damage to America’s global standing. And as the Syrian crisis escalates, America and the world will only rediscover their stakes in the Middle East. If Obama truly wants to pivot away from the Middle East then he has to help end the bloodletting in Syria.