When Bashar al-Assad decided to murder his own people at a rate never seen before in the Middle East, beginning in 2011, the world’s governments collectively watched it happen, threw up their hands and failed to stop the carnage. The result is the collapse of a major country in the heart of the Middle East, whose impact will be felt for decades to come.
We should all ask if we could have done more. I know I do, especially since I served in the State Department from 2014 to 2015. I wish that we had done better in the Obama administration. And I also wish that the American people had spoken out more forcefully against the violence. But we didn’t, and the net result is clear.
The Syrian war is an unabashed mark of failure by the world to stop a humanitarian catastrophe that has caused more than 400,000 deaths and the displacement of nearly 11.5 million people, which is more than half of the Syrian population.
It is a shameful blot on our collective consciousness. Yet like all humanitarian disasters, it’s about more than just the dreadful human cost. It’s also about the strategic costs of inaction and their impact on our long-term national security. On this count, from an American perspective, the Syrian war has been an utter disaster.
First, it has destabilized both European and American politics.
The Syrian refugee flows have created a backlash against political establishments across the West. Opposition to Syrian refugees was a campaign slogan used by the British proponents of Brexit, a vote that is threatening to destroy the European Union. And in the United States, President Donald Trump vigorously attacked the refugees as allegedly dangerous to American security — despite no such evidence — mobilizing support for his campaign. Our country is now more hostile to not only refugees, but also to immigrants and visitors from abroad.
Second, it has exacerbated sectarianism within the Middle East and fomented a rise in extremism.
The long simmering tensions between Sunni and Shia Muslims have come to the fore in Syria. Shiite Iran has supported Assad both directly and through its Lebanese militia, Hezbollah. At the same time, Sunni groups, with major backing from Sunni states like Saudi Arabia, have joined the fray. Syria has been transformed into a venue for regional proxy wars, fueling sectarianism. Consequently, regionally driven sectarian conflicts in Yemen, Iraq and Lebanon persist, creating more extremism across all national boundaries.
Third, Russia has now secured an ironclad beachhead in Syria that will be nearly impossible to dislodge.
Russia has long cultivated the Syrian relationship and came to Assad’s defense in his greatest hour of need for this exact purpose. We are yet to see Russia’s full plans for Syria and how it will use Syrian territory to project power across the Middle East, just as the United States has done for decades. This is a strategic setback for American leadership in the region that, absent new leverage, will be practically impossible to reverse. It also presents a real danger to Israel’s northern border, turning us backward to potential Cold War gamesmanship over the Middle East.
While there’s plenty of blame for this disaster to go around, blame doesn’t make a policy. Nonetheless, it’s crucial to recognize how we got here, to find a way out of this nightmare.
The true perpetrators of Syria’s destruction, such as the Islamic State, the Syrian regime, Iran and Hezbollah, and the multiple ideologically driven jihadi organizations dedicated to violent conflict, have their hands drenched in blood.
Russia, who facilitated Syria’s destruction by both blocking meaningful action at the United Nations to stop the fighting and then sending in its air force to bomb the opposition, may have killed some terrorists along the way, but its hand in Syria’s demolition has no doubt laid the seeds for many more.
The United States, who failed to mobilize the international community against this atrocity, failed to take meaningful unilateral action to stop the butchery, and failed to effectively help the Syrian people in their hour of need, watched the door open to this strategic disaster and never closed it. History will not judge our country’s actions kindly.
Yet here we are, more than six years into a conflict that must stop, but whose full impact is yet to be felt. Trump, wish as he may, cannot walk away from Syria, even if somehow the shooting stops. And unfortunately, he lacks a clear plan to either address the factors that led to the fighting or to push back against the strategic losses resulting from this tragedy.
The United States will inevitably have to deal with the impact of Syria’s collapse. And the impacts will come, whether we engage or not. So the question is, will we demand that our leaders finally become a part of the solution? JN
Joel Rubin is a national security and foreign policy strategist, a former deputy assistant secretary of state and a former Democratic candidate for Congress in Maryland’s 8th Congressional District.