Commentary Magazine


Syria Is a Regional Disaster

Just when you think that the situation in Syria couldn’t get any worse… it does.  The conflict is spilling over Syria’s borders and badly affecting its neighbors.

The United Nations Refugee Agency is reporting that the number of Syrians who have registered as refugees (which allows them access to aid and services) has now passed the 1 million mark. The actual number of refugees, many of them unregistered, is higher and millions more are internally displaced within Syria. The refugee flow is growing all the time with at least 7,000 people leaving the country every day. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees warns that “Syria is spiraling towards full-scale disaster”–and it’s not just Syria that is affected. As the New York Times notes:

Around 330,000 Syrians have sought shelter in Lebanon and close to 320,000 in Jordan, the refugee agency reported, with more than 185,000 in Turkey, 105,000 in Iraq, 43,500 in Egypt and around 8,000 across North Africa. Others have fled to Europe, it said.

To illustrate the strain this influx has imposed on Syria’s neighbors, the refugee agency said the population of Lebanon has swelled by 10 percent, Jordan’s energy and water capacity as well as its health and education services are stretched to the limit and Turkey had spent $600 million building 17 camps to house arrivals and more are under construction.

Meanwhile, two violent incidents in recent days show further spillover. On Monday, 40 Syrian soldiers who had sought shelter in Iraq and were being returned to Syria via Anbar Province were slain by unknown gunmen. This shows how the Syrian insurgency, led by Sunnis, is melding with the existing Sunni insurgency in Iraq, which is being enflamed by Prime Minister Maliki’s sectarian Shiite tendencies. And as if that weren’t bad enough, now comes news that Syrian rebels have abducted 20 UN peacekeepers from the Golan Heights.

Amid this intensifying horror, what is the Obama administration doing? Well Secretary of State John Kerry has announced that we will send non-lethal aid to the rebels, and he has expressed support for allies—but not, for mysterious reasons, the U.S. itself—sending arms to the rebels as well. The CIA is also reportedly providing some training to some rebels in Jordan.

To say that this is inadequate is merely to state the obvious. The Syrian mess is turning into the biggest foreign policy debacle of the Obama administration. Its hands-off policy is proving just as destructive as the hands-off policy that the George H.W. Bush and the Clinton administrations took in the early years of the bloodletting in the former Yugoslavia. Unfortunately it is unlikely that international peacekeepers will ever be dispatched to restore calm in Syria as eventually happened in Bosnia and Kosovo because Western nations are so wary of intervening in another Muslim country.

But as the Balkans interventions proved, it is still not too late—even after more than two years of war—for Washington to lead a relatively low-risk multilateral intervention that would attempt to bring the fighting to an end. In the case of Syria the only realistic option is to hasten Assad’s downfall through the provision of weapons and training to the rebels and the use of Western airpower to create a no-fly zone and to assist the rebels with close air support in their operations. Those options may not seem very palatable (especially at a time when sequestration is badly hurting military readiness) but unless the administration changes course, the spillover and slaughter will continue to worsen.