By Will Marshall, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Will Marshall is the president of the Progressive Policy Institute. The views expressed are his own.
After two years of escalating violence, the Syrian rebellion looks more and more like a Middle East version of the Spanish Civil War. It has turned into a vicious proxy war that is cleaving the region along sectarian lines and inspiring atrocities on all sides – ironically, the very dangers opponents of U.S. intervention have warned against.
President Barack Obama’s original decision to stand aloof from the Syrian uprising reflected his broader strategy of extricating America from Middle East conflicts. It also mirrored the anti-intervention consensus that has come to dominate U.S. foreign policy debates in the wake of our long and costly engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But as the death toll rises — and as Iran and Hezbollah go all in for Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, provoking a counter-mobilization of Sunni jihadists from across the region — Washington’s hands-off stance has become strategically and morally untenable.
Seizing on the regime’s apparent use of chemical weapons, Obama reversed himself last month and proposed to arm insurgents not tied to Islamist extremist groups. This has incensed the anti-interventionists, an improbably broad alliance that runs the gamut from Rand Paul, Ted Cruz and Michele Bachmann on the far right to the usual suspects on the anti-war left. In between are many erstwhile liberal internationalists chastened by the supposed “lessons” of Iraq and Afghanistan. What unites them is an unfounded sense of futility about America’s ability to shape events in the Middle East.
Meanwhile, the Syrian crisis is generating a powerful lesson of its own: Non-intervention can be dangerous, too. For a superpower like the United States, there are no free rides: The decision not to act also entails calculable costs and risks. Let’s tote them up:
Mounting death toll. What began as peaceful, Arab Spring style demonstrations against al-Assad’s inherited dictatorship has morphed into a grinding slaughter. More than 100,000 people thus far have perished in the fighting, with no end in sight. Western leaders, who grandly declared that they would not allow Moammar Gadhafi to butcher protesting Libyan civilians, have in effect given al-Assad a free pass. The result is a humanitarian disaster that could surpass Iraq in magnitude.
Growing refugee crisis. Well over a million Syrians have fled the country and are now crowding makeshift camps in Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon. The exodus is overwhelming the resources of those countries, especially those that absorbed previous waves of Iraqi and Palestinian refugees. Another million or so Syrians are thought to have been displaced internally by the fighting.
Region is roiled by sectarian conflict. Iran is pulling out all the stops to save its loyal satrap in Damascus. In addition to supplying weapons (flying over an acquiescent Iraq), units of Iran’s Republican Revolutionary Guard and its notorious Quds Force are operating in Syria. Hezbollah, the third pillar of the self-styled “axis of resistance” (against Israel and America) has also entered the fray, and it is credited with helping al-Assad’s forces retake Qusair last month. Shiite volunteers are reportedly streaming into Syria from Iraq, Yemen and Afghanistan.
Magnet for jihadis. Al-Assad’s unrelenting brutality, abetted by Shia Iran and Hezbollah, has inflamed Sunni Arabs. According to a report in Foreign Affairs by Thomas Hegghammer and Aaron Zelin, an estimated 5,000 Sunnis from 60 countries are fighting in Syria. This number includes hardcore Salafist groups who have poured into the vacuum left by the West’s reluctance to arm indigenous Syrian insurgents. “Syria is the new epicenter for the global jihad, with would-be ‘martyrs’ arriving from across the Islamic world to fight Assad,” says Bruce Riedel, a former CIA and National Security Council official. “They are getting experience in the terror arts they will bring home.” They’re also causing growing friction within Syria as they attempt to impose their harsh brand of Islamist “justice” on areas under their control.
Newly assertive Russia. Although its influence in the Middle East evaporated after the Soviet Union unraveled, Russia is angling to reassert its Cold War role as the great power patron of the region’s radical, anti-Israel and anti-American regimes. In tandem with China, President Vladimir Putin has blocked all attempts to muster a unified United Nations response to al-Assad’s depredations. Moscow is supplying al-Assad with sophisticated air defense and other weapons, blandly insisting it’s just fulfilling contracts with Syria’s legitimate government.
Ineffectual United States. Key U.S. allies in the region – Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt – are baffled and alarmed by Washington’s passivity toward Syria. While our enemies are fully committed to throttling the popular revolt, there’s a growing impression that the United States just wants to disengage and let the Middle East stew in its own toxic juices while we “pivot” to Asia. The administration’s ambivalence toward the turmoil in Egypt has only deepened this sense of U.S. impotence and strategic irrelevance.
Al-Assad seems to have the momentum in the fighting, and if he and his allies prevail, it would be a tragedy first and foremost for Syria’s brutalized people. It would be a huge win for Iran, which would resume its quest for regional dominance with fresh confidence and be even less likely to heed international demands to dismantle its nuclear program. It would vindicate Hezbollah’s controversial decision to send its best fighters to fight and die in Syria (instead of Israel) and likely bend Iraq’s Shiite government further toward Tehran. And Russia would bask in its restored status as a key arbiter of Middle East politics.
Maybe none of this will come to pass. But it would be folly for Washington to ignore the growing risk of a strategic rout in Syria that emboldens our adversaries, galvanizes Islamist extremists, destabilizes friendly governments, deals a potentially fatal blow to the Arab Spring and puts Israel in an even more precarious position. If such a debacle befalls us, the anti-interventionists will have some explaining to do.