The bloody scenes of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s scorched-earth campaign in Eastern Aleppo have faded from the news, yet the killing in Syria continues. As you read this, thousands of peaceful activists are still being murdered in the Assad’s regime’s industrial-scale torture system, and nearly 1 million Syrians are still trapped under siege.
But even if you are unmoved by these crimes, you should still be paying attention. The events in Syria have consequences that are reshaping the modern world order: American credibility has been damaged, our allies have been weakened, our enemies have grown in strength… and Syria isn’t over yet.
Over the past six years we have learned that when America – the strongest power in the world – fails to exercise leadership in the face of global crisis, malicious actors will gladly step in. As a result, the world is more dangerous and unstable than it has been in decades. The Trump Administration can avoid the errors of its predecessor by acknowledging the full range of the threats that Syria’s ongoing war poses to American interests and then acting with urgency bring the bloodshed to an end.
The Syria conflict has created the perfect breeding ground for religious extremists of all stripes. Iran has imported foreign fighters from Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan to join with Hezbollah and a slew of new Syrian sectarian paramilitary groups to create a Shiite coalition to prop up the Assad regime.
The path forward in Syria is difficult and complicated, but it is a path that the U.S. must forge because there is no other actor up to this task.
The conflict also allowed for the rise of a new al-Qaeda affiliate, and birthed the monster known as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). Ignored and even supported by the Assad regime as it attacked the legitimate Syrian opposition, ISIS was given safe haven to grow and spread its hateful ideology around the world.
From 2011 to 2017 the Obama Administration pursued a Syria policy that was somehow both ill-defined and inflexible at the same time. In lieu of either intervention or disengagement, its approach was confusing and half-hearted, and often went against the advice of the nation’s national security, defense, and diplomatic officials.
America’s capricious and inept efforts to support various actors on the ground both weakened moderate Syrian groups and alienated regional allies like Turkey and Saudi Arabia. The Obama administration acknowledged that the Assad has committed atrocities, aided the rise of ISIS, and now stands in the way of peace in Syria, yet it was unwilling to take steps to deter Assad and his backers.
The Syrian carnage today stands as indisputable proof of the folly of this course of action.
The secondary consequences of the conflict are too numerous to count. Here are some of the big ones: waves of refugees have destabilized Syria’s neighbors and weakened the European Union, with anti-refugee propaganda playing a key role in Brexit and a similar wave of fear-driven nationalism threatening to engulf France.
In the U.S., this anti-refugee sentiment is creating political turmoil and distracting us from the very real terror threats we face.
Russia and Iran are growing threats to international peace and stability, as both countries have leveraged their interventions in Syria to expand their influence and become increasingly aggressive. Russian obstruction at the UN Security Council has allowed the Syrian government to continue to launch chemical attacks and commit other war crimes with impunity. Russia itself has been directly implicated in using internationally banned arms such as cluster munitions.
Vladimir Putin tested the Obama Administration’s will in Syria, and called its bluff. Only a fraction of Russian airstrikes in Syria have targeted ISIS or al-Qaeda-linked groups. Instead they support Assad’s efforts to destroy all domestic opposition, hitting civilian targets like hospitals and schools in a massive collective punishment campaign that threatens to drive millions more people from the country.
The path forward in Syria is difficult and complicated, but it is a path that the U.S. must forge because there is no other actor up to this task. American leadership can help prevent the worst humanitarian crisis of our time from deepening further and can halt the destabilizing forces it has unleashed on the world: the refugees, the growth of terror, and the empowerment of Russia and Iran.
The price of inaction in Syria has been incredibly high, but it can and will increase unless we prioritize ending this war. It is incumbent upon our political and military leaders to make sure that Syria does not get lost in the bitter partisanship of the moment.
Global stability and American security are bipartisan issues: we all benefit when our power is exercised responsibly and effectively on the world stage. If we fail, we all pay the price together.
Valerie Szybala is Executive Director and co-founder of The Syria Institute, an independent, non-profit, non-partisan research institution based in Washington, DC.