Why U.S. should care about Syria crisis
February 20th, 2014
06:06 PM ET

Why U.S. should care about Syria crisis

By Nader Hashemi, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Nader Hashemi is director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. His latest book is The Syria Dilemma. The views expressed are his own.

The moral case for why Syria matters is easy to make. The killing fields of Syria are now reminiscent of those in Bosnia. Over the past three years, we have witnessed state-sanctioned war crimes and crimes against humanity replete with chemical weapons, barrel bombs, the targeting of children, mass rape, a refugee crisis and according to a new report “industrial-scale” torture and killings. Indeed, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees has described Syria as “a disgraceful humanitarian calamity with suffering and displacement unparalleled in recent history.”

But a new dimension to this conflict has emerged: Syria is now a global security problem.

The Syrian conflict is destabilizing the Middle East. Lebanon has been convulsed, Iraq has been shaken and Jordan’s fourth largest city today is a Syrian refugee camp. To a lesser extent, Turkey has also been adversely affected – some 600,000 refugees are said to be currently living on the Turkish-Syrian border, and Turkey’s role in the conflict has become a major bone of contention in domestic Turkish politics.

Meanwhile, the conflict has heightened sectarian tensions across the Arab-Islamic world, fueled in part by the regional maneuverings of Saudi Arabia and Iran and their respective allies. Both are fighting to expand their regional influence, and Syria today is the key battleground for the contest.

Finally, al Qaeda has re-emerged from the ashes of the Syrian conflict. “Al Qaeda now controls territory that stretches more than 400 miles across the heart of the Middle East,” CNN analyst Peter Bergen recently observed.

This deeply troubling development has obvious implications for global security, especially for Europe and the United States.

Reports suggest that as many as 2,000 Europeans have travelled to Syria, motivated in part by the numerous atrocities of the Syrian conflict. What will happen when they return home? The potential threat is clear, and it’s a development that has huge implications for European security and domestic politics (including because this development acts as fuel for Europe’s far right, with their anti-Muslim agendas).

The dangers of the Syrian conflict have been underscored by the U.S. intelligence community. Last month, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told Congress that roughly 7,000 foreign fighters from across 50 countries are in Syria today, most of them linked with extremist militias. He also noted how al Qaeda affiliates in Syria “have aspirations for attacks on the homeland.”

In other words, Syria is the new Afghanistan.

And the ripple effects of the Syrian conflict are being felt as far away as Southeast Asia. According to a recent report by the Institute for Policy Analysis and Conflict in Jakarta, Syria has “captured the imagination of Indonesian extremists in a way no foreign war has before,” fueling the revival of a weakened jihadi movement at home. Indeed, dozens of Indonesian are believed to have already travelled to Syria.

These trends undermine a key assumption in much of the U.S. debate about Syria, specifically that what happens over there simply doesn’t matter here – that it can be “contained” within its borders, or at least within the region. Many also argue that while the conflict is tragic from a human perspective, it does not threaten vital U.S. national security interests and so American involvement should be kept to a bare minimum.

This argument is no longer sustainable, a conclusion President Obama seems to be reaching himself. Speaking this month at a news conference with French President Francois Hollande, Obama stated that Syria is now “one of our highest national security priorities.”

But such a realization will need to be coupled with a new Syria policy, including a more active U.S. role in assisting the rebels. As The Economist argued in an editorial last month:

“[T]urning the tide of the fighting might shift the negotiations, too. If the regime is under pressure on the battlefield, it may be more willing to negotiate a proper ceasefire, or even, if people are tired of war, Mr Assad’s departure.”

Challenging the Russian position on Syria is also critical. To date, the Russians have blocked three U.N. Security Council resolutions and are now threating to veto a fourth. If Russia continues to block international action on Syria, especially on the humanitarian front, the United States and its allies should use more coercive means to ensure the delivery of aid.

It’s important to remember that the only time al-Assad has made a serious concession has been in the context of the sarin gas attack, when the threat of force produced last September’s chemical weapons agreement. There are lessons here for the future.

More broadly, however, the Obama administration needs to prioritize the question of Syria itself. Hoping this conflict will disappear simply because it has fallen out of the headlines is wishful thinking. Syria is already the biggest moral and humanitarian catastrophe of the 21st century. But it has now morphed into a major global security crisis, one that isn’t going away.

We ignore it at our own collective peril.

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Topics: Syria • United States

soundoff (48 Responses)
  1. zcyrus

    This whole mess bear's a great deal of Russian responsibility. Facts are Libya would be just like Syria today if we had not intervened and help the people remove Gadaffi. Facts are intervention has saved hundreds of thousands of lives, and prevented the displacement of MILLIONS. Putin's non intervention policy in Syria is a failure, and it's THAT simple. But of course the whole time Iran has been intervening on the side of criminal Assad with it's Revolutionary Guard and Hezbollah, helping him slaughter civilians.....Hypocrisy at it's worst.

    February 21, 2014 at 12:04 am | Reply
    • zedshed

      "Facts are Libya would be just like Syria today if we had not intervened and help the people remove Gadaffi."

      What garbage. Libya is in a bad way, the people are far, far worse off than they would have been had nothing been done, their progress towards democracy has effectively been stopped, and Qaeda have been made much more powerful to spread terror elsewhere.

      We're even arming the extremists in Syria to kill Christians as well as Muslims, and further help the extremist cause! Incredible stupidity!

      February 22, 2014 at 4:33 am | Reply
      • j. von hettlingen

        Indeed, the best way to contain these conflicts would be to divide the warring parties. Let them be on the own and prevent them from fighting each other. A breakup of Syria might just be the only answer to resolving the conflict. Let Assad and his Alawites have their state. Once the Sunnis are on their own, it would be easier to help them fight the Islamists and extremists.

        February 23, 2014 at 12:34 pm |
    • Wim Roffel

      When we interfered in Libya the uprising was almost over. It was our interference that raised the death toll from a few thousand to thirty thousand.

      Similarly, if we had not encouraged and supported the Syrian opposition to go confrontational and if we had not encouraged Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar to fund, arm and otherwise support their uprising Syria would now be in a much better shape.

      February 22, 2014 at 6:37 am | Reply
    • philos

      Libya was ten times better befor USA "bring deomcracy". They had dree electricity, fuel, helth care....no they have nothing only al.kaida and american-goverment-puppet-regime that sells all oil for free to USA companies to pay for american intervention

      February 23, 2014 at 12:22 pm | Reply
    • Freedom

      Have you look at Libya, they are free. they have have democracy and it all well. Just like the UN and U.S predicted.
      My roomate is libyan he fought agaisnt Gaddafi but now everyday he say he regreted it and feel so bad for having the blood of his brothers in his hands. He said Libya will be back but first they have to get rid of Qaeda seeds that U.S planted over there.

      February 23, 2014 at 6:07 pm | Reply
  2. Benedict

    Geopolitical influence and power has a hand in this man-made disaster!!!. Putin wants a strong Russia even if means innocent civilians are involved; while Saudi Arabia and Iran ( mortal enemies ), can't wait to spread money and guns to their consigleri!!!.
    A recipe for war without end, if you ask me!!!.

    February 21, 2014 at 2:42 am | Reply
  3. Stephen Albert

    I might add that America and the West in general's, failure to stand up for their principles in Syria is not without cost.

    President Obama proclaimed Assad had to go. Then use of chemical weapons were a redline.Sound and fury signifying nothing.

    He then embraced a chemical weapons plan put forward by Vladimir Putin.This might have emboldened Putin to feel he could pressure Ukraine not to move closer to the E.U,with the consequences we now see.

    Speaking of consequences. President Obama is now threatening consequences if there is further repression in Ukraine. After his failure to enforce his redline on Assad's use of chemical weapons,who believes him?

    February 21, 2014 at 4:14 am | Reply
    • diana horton

      As i recall, when our President wanted a limited strike on Syria. He did not have the backing of congress. nor did he have the backing of the US people. everyone wanted to stay out of Syria. This strike may have helped some what. everyone wants to blame this on Obama when all he did was do as the people wanted and what our GOVT was pushing for. So tell me what he did wrong. At some point in time someone will have to intervene in this mess. And make no mistake, this is a tragic mess. How the world can watch children dying from barrel bomb's and all the displaced people and starving is not that to far off than what Hitler did to the jewish people.–peace

      February 22, 2014 at 4:22 pm | Reply
  4. Joseph McCarthy

    Of course the U.S. is concerned about Syria as the right-wing thugs in Washington are aspiring to take over that country through the so-called Syrian "Free" Army. Otherwise, the Assad regime would have settled this conflict long ago!

    February 21, 2014 at 10:23 am | Reply
    • banasy©


      February 21, 2014 at 1:54 pm | Reply
      • Joseph McCarthy

        Really, banasy? Somehow I don't think so! Evidently, you don't understand the conservative mind and the endless greed these thugs feel. These things tend to go together.

        February 22, 2014 at 10:07 am |
      • Joseph McCarthy

        Banasy, you nailed it. I really am a right winger. It now is time for me to have my midnight snack of pepperoni pizza.

        February 22, 2014 at 11:15 pm |
      • banasy©

        Yes, BULL. Your analysis is pure bull.

        February 23, 2014 at 2:32 pm |
      • Jerry Falwell

        Just ignore those ignorant Tea Partiers above, Joseph. They support the right-wing bureaucrats in Washington and believes everything they say since they know no better. Evidently, they're jealous of you intelligence.

        February 23, 2014 at 4:59 pm |
      • McCarthy and Falwell charming

        Joseph and Jerry are the same person. Stupid and hateful

        February 23, 2014 at 6:03 pm |
  5. virginia

    I predicted this two years ago...that Syria would become like Afghanistan if left to fend on its own...a desolate lawless desert

    February 21, 2014 at 11:41 am | Reply
    • virginia

      I brag a lot. Tonight we are having pepperoni pizza

      February 23, 2014 at 6:39 pm | Reply
  6. Jeff Anderson

    No one denies Assad isn't a good guy, but the prospect of what is going to take his place if his regime falls will be much worst of a threat to our national security than the Assad regime is. No fan of the Assad Regime but of the 40 years his family has ruled Syria I can't recall them ever declaring a war on us in which Al Qaeda has and they are major power house there not the free Syrian Army. Yes they might be fighting ISIS, but they are fighting side by side with Al Nusra who recently a U.S. security adviser said could have plans to attack America.

    And for those blaming Russia, Syria has been there allie historically, its one of there only naval bases outside of Russia what do you expect of course they will back Assad they have a horrible problem with radical Muslims in there caucus region.

    February 21, 2014 at 3:33 pm | Reply
  7. Irwin Mainway

    It is actually VERY simple to resolve. NO-FLY ZONE – also preapproved to prevent War Crimes occurring, such as shelling of homes.

    President Obama needs to fire Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who is against the idea of a NO-FLY ZONE in Syria as "problematic"; in other words he can't guarantee zero casualties.

    Senator McCain was against the choice of Dempsey, sounded the alarm two years ago on Syria and radicals invading it, and is now just appalled.

    I did exaggerate, Putin would be enraged and would dare the U.S. to stop his frantic 24/7 flights into Syria packed with 'smart' rockets, surveillance drones and munitions.

    Obama has to stand up to him sometime.

    February 21, 2014 at 9:37 pm | Reply
  8. Vadim

    Once again, a call for us in the good old USA to become an Al-Qaida air force. Why? If these people prevail in Syria with our help, as they did in Afghanistan, they would surely attack us, just as they did on 9/11. If the author of this article indeed believes that we need to kill someone in Syria in order to bring peace, perhaps, we should abandon our support for Saudi Arabia and instead help Iranians destroy the rebels? After all, there were no Syrians or Iranians on the planes hitting the Twin Towers, but plenty of Saudis.

    February 21, 2014 at 11:48 pm | Reply
  9. kafantaris2

    "[N]arrowly tailored attacks targeting Islamist fighters who may be looking to use that country’s lawless war zones as a staging ground for potential attacks on U.S. allies, U.S. interests and possibly the United States itself."
    Sounds good.
    And doable in the present international and domestic environment.
    Let's go for it.

    February 22, 2014 at 12:00 am | Reply
  10. chrissy

    @ zedshed, aint that the truth. Ive had a verrrry hard time trying to phathom the logic in us helping the rebels ever since i learned they were mainly Al Queada! I thought we were supposed to be in a war on terrorists???

    February 22, 2014 at 5:01 am | Reply

    because it could effect Israel's security and for NOTHING ELSE.
    well, not complete true : properly more arm deals with the Golf's states .

    that explains every thing :
    -military support to anyone ( even criminals ) to weaken Assad and Iran

    -only interested in chemical weapons disarming that could thread Israel, while flooding the country with weapons just enough to keep the war going on and killing going on. ( knowing clearly that flooding a country with irregular weapon will be the main and almost permanent obstacle to democracy)

    -humanitarian support just to keep the refugees in camps while getting many folds back in military equipments sales to the Golf ( thanks to the Syrian war and the increased risk from Iran to the Golf).

    -keeping a close eye on a clear and obvious funds from Golf's donors to Al-Qaida and other Islamist groups in Syria as long as they kill only Syrians.

    wolfs in angels' cloths
    Thanks US : keep crying rivers on the refugees which using Russia as a excuse not to do any proper action ( oh no they might Veto it ; as if they ever cared about that.

    recently new weapons with tents !!!! through Gordan , as they clearly know that will cause another wave of refugees. but who cares.

    February 22, 2014 at 6:25 pm | Reply
  12. chrissy

    Its a waste of time @ diana horton. Unfortunately for Prez Obama, hes damned if he does and damned if he doesnt! It appears that Congress's declaration to make certain he is a failure takes precidance over the good of our country! And it leads me to question their true motives! Im leaning towards the thought that they (congress) had an idea that if they let him, he could very well go down in history as one of the USs all time greatest! And gosh knows they couldnt have that now could they? Lol. He had some truly great ideas and as we can all see, he hangs in even when the going gets tough. But if that were to happen THEIR lives, and more importantly, their bank accounts, would never be the same! So....they've used every slimeball tactic in the book to interfere. And "we the people" end up to be the real losers! And in my mind they end up to be traitors!

    February 22, 2014 at 6:34 pm | Reply
    • an eye for an eye until the whole world is blind

      Thanks chrissy, You are so right! It seems like we are choosing to become blind, rather than face the truth and do the right thing. Who cares if Obama is black, half-white, full-brown, green, yellow, red or magenta!!!!!!!!!!! He is an amazing President, do those sick Tea Baggers get it??? Why don't they show us their KKK membership card that they hide in their wallets and tell us who they really are......... scared little white boys, that are so so so afraid the the non-whites are "taking over".......... get over it, you lackeys............ smell the coffee.............. everything is made in China anyway.......... Ha! Ha! Ha! Every single politician that is thwarting Obama's awesome efforts needs to be fired. Period.

      February 24, 2014 at 3:13 pm | Reply
  13. chrissy

    I guess i should add a ps to my earlier post because i know someones gonna say...oh yea what about obamacare? It ISNT obamacare first off...its the ACA that was a spin off of Romneys HCA! And now its a mess because congress had to insert tons of garbage to make sure it was a flop! Like a bunch of spiteful children who cant see the forest for the trees! Time for them to GROW UP OR GET OUT!

    February 22, 2014 at 11:06 pm | Reply
  14. John Hopkins

    Syria's assad is an employee of the RUSSIAN MOBSTER VLADIMIR ras PUTIN and gave free usage of Syria's port on the Mediterranean to ras PUTIN, in exchange of protection, same way as Russian mobsters give protection to their clients. well , ras PUTIN is the mobster and Assad is the client. In exchange of that assad has a white card to kill and do whateve he wants since he is under the protection of the MOBSTER ras PUTIN world mafia HEADMASTER!.
    Even the poor Obama clown is afraid of ras PUTIN!

    February 24, 2014 at 10:28 am | Reply
    • pandurabox

      who is Obama Administration to interfere the Ass Itch of Syrian local problems ... why CIA 's Ass is itching ...

      March 23, 2014 at 11:36 pm | Reply
  15. Jerry Okamura

    Will the troubles in Syria, start another World War? Can the US survive, even if the situation in Syria gets much worse?

    February 24, 2014 at 3:57 pm | Reply
  16. chrissy

    Lmao ty @ eye for eye! Im starting to think people voted into political office should have a competancy test first! And a mental eval as well!

    February 24, 2014 at 6:39 pm | Reply
  17. dmf

    The rebel groups in Syria are not united , and most influential groups are extremists Islamist and / or Al Qaida and their sympathizers . Obama administration should continue humanitarian and refugee assistance , for Turkey , Jordan , Lebanon , Iraq and other countries heavily affected by influx of refugees from Syria . The U. S. should not help Syrian rebel groups with heavy arms , ammunitions and military assistance . Syria is faced with a sectarian and a civil war . There are many Arab and Muslim countries , including Saudi Arabia and Gulf States and Iran are engaged , from both sides of Syrian civil war . The Obama administration should not intervene in another War in the Middle East countries . The U. S. economy can not afford to pay for it . There is no popular support here , for another war in Syria and President Obama was elected in 2008 to end wars !

    February 24, 2014 at 8:24 pm | Reply
  18. MazeAndBlue

    The days for nation building are over. The grab land for Russia and USA are over. We the USA need to focus on our domestic issues.

    February 25, 2014 at 10:23 am | Reply
  19. RLTJ's

    One way of easing the pains of Syria's innocents is to create an absolutely arm-free, demilitarized, zones to be administered by the neutral world.
    Apparently it will not work in similar manner that "hamlet ting did not work for the Americans in Vietnam.

    February 26, 2014 at 8:33 pm | Reply
  20. Chuck

    Our own president is punishing us, why would he help Syria

    February 27, 2014 at 6:14 pm | Reply
  21. Youie

    Detroit doesn't look any better than any Syrian city. Let US mind its own business.

    February 28, 2014 at 5:56 am | Reply
    • the ignorance continues

      but the US profits tremendously by minding other people's business. Get it???????

      March 1, 2014 at 5:56 pm | Reply
  22. Brett Champion

    You can't destabilize what was never stable to begin with. So long as the oil continues to come out of the Gulf, the US has no interest in what's going in Syria.

    March 8, 2014 at 6:30 pm | Reply
  23. pandurabox

    The Syrian Civil war was created by CIA ..

    March 23, 2014 at 11:31 pm | Reply
  24. pandurabox

    There is no Civil war in Syria but CIA game only....okz

    March 23, 2014 at 11:33 pm | Reply
  25. pandurabox

    CIA is recruiting Jehadi's for Syria in Pakistan ...paying US $ 1.5 billion through Saudi Intelligence... A new grave for US...hahahaaaaaaaa

    March 23, 2014 at 11:42 pm | Reply
  26. pandurabox

    Obama administration’s handling of Syria crisis seen threatening EU security
    Special to WorldTribune.com
    WASHINGTON — Relations between the United States and the European Union have been strained over the Al Qaida war in Syria.
    Diplomats said the EU has been concerned over U.S. policy concerning the Sunni revolt in Syria.
    U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry
    U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry
    The diplomats said the administration of President Barack Obama was tolerating the flow of fighters and weapons to Al Qaida militias in northern Syria.
    “Syria has attracted thousands of Europeans and some of them were returning to their native countries,” a diplomat said.
    NATO has determined that up to 11,000 foreigners were fighting in Syria, most of them with Al Qaida-aligned militias. The diplomats said the Europeans were trained in improvised explosive devices, intelligence and recruitment.
    “I’ve talked to leaders in those countries who are deeply concerned about what those people may do when they return to their country,” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said.
    Over the last month, Kerry has been meeting EU foreign ministers regarding the prospect of an Al Qaida blowback. The secretary said Washington was working with Brussels to track foreign fighters in Syria.
    “So we have a global interest in trying to know what terrorists are
    going to do before they do it,” Kerry said.
    Diplomats said the threat of a blowback from Lebanon and Syria marked a
    leading concern of the EU. They said the proximity of these two Levant
    states to Europe combined with the Al Qaida presence in Turkey would enable thousands of Islamist insurgents to
    operate in EU countries.
    “The conflict is hardening and it is no longer only a battle between the
    government and the opposition of Syria, but it is a battle, a fight between
    different groups of the opposition,” German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter
    Steinmeier said.

    March 23, 2014 at 11:46 pm | Reply

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