Feature

Syria: Yes, it could get even worse

Syria’s civil war could lead to “a major conflict between Sunnis and Shiites throughout the Muslim world.”

“Is it too late for us to do something about Syria?” said Fred Kaplan in Slate.com. Congressional intelligence committees belatedly approved President Obama’s plan to send weapons to the Syrian opposition this week, but those shipments of small arms will not substantially affect an ongoing humanitarian catastrophe, which has taken nearly 100,000 lives and forced 1.7 million Syrians to flee the country. The conflict is no longer a simple civil war between dictatorial President Bashar al-Assad and rebel forces, but a regional sectarian struggle between Hezbollah, the Shiite extremist group that is fighting for Assad, and Sunni affiliates of al Qaida who are trying to oust Assad. In recent weeks, Assad has reversed the war’s momentum, said Ben Hubbard in The New York Times. The rival rebel groups have turned on each other and are battling over turf “with increasing ferocity.” Meanwhile, the dictator has “carved out what amounts to a rump state in central Syria,” with firm control over Damascus and cities in the country’s north.

That’s all the more reason to act now, said Anthony H. Cordesman in The Washington Post. If Assad clings to power, Syria’s civil war could lead to “a major conflict between Sunnis and Shiites throughout the Muslim world”—dividing Lebanon, threatening Turkey, destabilizing Iraq, and empowering Iran. To tip the balance back to the rebels, the U.S. should convince its allies to help fund and create a no-fly zone over all of Syria. That’s unlikely to happen, said Gordon Lubold in ForeignPolicy.com. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey testified this week that establishing a no-fly zone would cost up to a billion dollars a month, and could easily “slip the U.S. into another new war.” Interventionists like Sen. John McCain are clamoring for Obama to do something, but the reality is that “every military option in Syria sucks.”

Still, the U.S. can’t afford to passively await the outcome, said Dennis Ross in NewRepublic.com. It will be time-consuming and difficult to direct training, money, and weapons to the right opposition groups, so that Assad can be forced to accept a negotiated transition from power. But consider the alternative: Eventually, Syria will fall apart and become “a failed state.” Assad’s chemical weapons would then fall into the hands of al Qaida–affiliated rebels. This brutal war is already “one of the greatest tragedies of the 21st century,” but it could get much, much worse.

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