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Michael Gerson: Syria’s uncontainable threat

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Michael Gerson
February 20, 2014

ZAATARI REFUGEE CAMP, JORDAN -- In a section of the camp designated for newcomers, I’m surrounded by about 20 men from the Damascus suburb of Ghouta, elbowing each other for position. The situation quickly degenerates into a geopolitical discussion.

“We are not just fighting Assad,” says one man, “we are fighting Russia, Iran and Hezbollah.” Accurate. “The Western countries,” adds another “are just waiting around.”

True enough. Their sympathies are with the more moderate Free Syrian Army, but the radical Islamist group Jabhat al-Nusra “gives us food and assistance.”

It is clear who has more resources. The discussion might have taken place at a Washington think tank, except that one man had been in Ghouta during the chemical weapons attacks. “I couldn’t get near,” he recalled, “because of all the commotion and screaming. After a while, it was quiet.” After a while, it was quiet.

The Obama administration is re-examining its failed Syria policy. At some point it becomes hard to downplay the largest number of displaced people since Rwanda and a death count approaching that of the Bosnian war. Bashar al-Assad is an utterly committed and murderous opponent. Russia seems unlikely to abandon a strategy that has returned it to the center of Middle Eastern power politics. A variety of radical Islamist groups, including tens of thousands of foreign fighters, both contribute to and feed on the chaos.

From a U.S. perspective, this disaster is not just humanitarian but strategic. A Somalia-like future for Syria would be an uncontainable regional and global threat. Lebanon is already being overwhelmed, with one out of four people now a Syrian refugee, adding tension to a combustible sectarian mix. In Jordan, the influx has left public services near the breaking point. Jordanian border guards routinely intercept automatic weapons, hand grenades and bombs with remote detonators coming out of Syria.

“Some are headed to sleeper cells in Jordan,” a Jordanian general told me, “others are in transit to other countries.”

One of the largest challenges related to Syria is strategic despair. It is easy to argue that any given policy change would be inadequate, late or risky.

This has led some to propose a radical option: tacitly concede defeat, accept that Assad is ascendant and engage him in a counterterrorism strategy. But this would not only reward mass atrocities, it would be the acceptance of Russian and Iranian strategic dominance in the Middle East and the betrayal of our current friends. And it would reward mass atrocities.

Obama’s alternatives are difficult, but not nonexistent. Additional help to acceptable rebels? This is beginning to happen. Leaders of aid organizations in Jordan report seeing trucks with Saudi aid driving north across the border into Syria each night. The consistent American fear has been that arms and assistance will fall into the wrong hands. But it seems a more urgent problem, as the Zaatari refugees indicated, that radical groups have resources while more moderate forces have little to offer.

Some American officials believe it is possible to identify acceptable rebel groups, particularly in southern Syria where there are fewer foreign jihadists. And not every Islamist group is favorable to terrorism. The hope is that Syrians, not generally known for religious radicalism, will marginalize religious radicals in a post-Assad government. But first the rebels must survive.

Create humanitarian safe havens within Syria to relieve refugee pressures on neighboring countries? Again, the Saudis are already moving in this direction, providing tents for encampments in southern Syria. But refugee magnets can easily become targets. Effective safe havens would require military protection and a flow of supplies—a major, sustained commitment. Yet several regional powers might be persuaded to join an effort similar to the creation of safe havens during the Bosnian conflict.

Take out the Syrian planes and helicopters? President Obama was once on the verge of aerial strikes—always a grim, final option, and a risky escalation. But he might decide that the final option has been reached, to stop the barrel bombs from being dropped on neighborhoods and to push back the range of regime attacks to the reach of their artillery.

With Russia blocking any decisive action at the United Nations, any mix of these approaches would require a coalition of the willing. But there are a number of nations—including Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Jordan and France—that seem to be willing. America is not alone; it has simply not led. And a paralyzing fear of unintended consequences, it turns out, can result in massive unintended consequences.

Michael Gerson is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group; email michaelgerson@washpost.com.

 



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