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Syria is far past the brink. The death toll, now estimated at seventy thousand, is routinely punctuated with suicide bombings that echo the worst days of the Iraqi insurgency. Assad has responded with surface-to-surface missiles fired into densely populated Aleppo, Syria’s largest city. Despite rebel gains, Bashar al-Assad remains the primary driver of events on the ground, and all indicators point toward his ability and willingness to extract an increasingly terrible price from the opposition.
It did not have to be this way. We now know that President Obama quashed lethal aid to the Syrian resistance, and has deferred to chronically ineffective U.N efforts. With Obama’s reelection safely in hand, outgoing Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has only recently told the American people that Obama overruled the advice of the intelligence community and the Pentagon on sending the Syrian rebels weaponry.
With that data point, it is now clear that President Obama’s inaction on Syria has helped lead to a number of unintended consequences. For one, the Jihadists are stronger than ever within the resistance, with fighters flocking to Syria from Rabat to Rawalpindi. Some say the Nusra Front, Al Qaeda’s Levantine affiliate, comprises a quarter of the overall resistance.
Now many of the best-trained, most dedicated anti-Assad insurgents are these hardline Islamists, who have their own networks for transporting weapons and fighters to the front. Al Qaeda funding may not be what it was before 9/11, but there are still plenty of wealthy Gulf Arabs willing to support their favored factions in a struggle to the death against Alawites and their Shia helpers in Syria.
On the other side of the battle lines, Assad has outlasted many predictions for his demise, and Iran, Hezbollah, and Russia remain firmly affixed in his camp. If we were worried about Syria becoming an international proxy conflict, that ship sailed long ago. The U.S. has abstained while other countries have doubled-down.
Sadly for the Syrian people, the Obama administration has managed to conflate a cautious approach with a callous one, and chosen the path not just of least resistance, but least influence as well. For an administration that has made an art form of digital era poll watching and messaging, the lack of meaningful leadership in Syria could come with a catastrophic cost.
Of course President Obama could dramatically change course and take a much more proactive role in ending the Syrian disaster. Weapon shipments to elements of the resistance, passed through third party countries such as Turkey or Jordan, would certainly arrive better late than never.
Absent such a shift in policy, Syria in a post-Assad era increasingly looks like it will be a state akin to Pakistan on the Mediterranean: riddled with Al Qaeda factions, strongly anti-American on the street, and constantly raising fears of implosion. Even this would rely on many positive assumptions, including a relatively constrained endgame from Assad, limited Sunni sectarian reprisals against Alawites and Christians, and Kurdish willingness to play along with the new Syrian state.
The worst-case scenario involves a conflict that spills across borders into Turkey, Israel, Jordan, Iraq, or Lebanon, and sees vast stockpiles of chemical weapons fall into the wrong hands. And at this juncture in Syria, it remains difficult to determine just whose hands we could trust to hold them.
Which brings us back to the current conundrum: even if Assad is doomed, he may have already caused enough damage to leave behind a failed state. And it could get worse. Saddam Hussein’s Anfal campaign against the Kurds, including his use of chemical weapons at Halabja, is an ominous historical precedent. Saddam, too, was doomed in the long run, but not before a ferocious campaign of slaughter against his own people that still echoes in Iraq today.
Sadly, no matter what the U.S. does now, the tyrant of Damascus will have extracted a terrible price from the Syrian people. And whether he wins or loses, Assad will face his end buoyed by an insidious final hope that the Jihadists will only make things worse for Syria once he is gone.
Buck Sexton is a former CIA Officer assigned to the Counterterrorism Center and the Office of Iraq Analysis.