WASHINGTON — While chemical weapons disarmament proceeds in Syria, so do mass attacks on civilians. In the eastern suburbs of Damascus, where the regime used sarin, it now conducts a siege, blocking the entrance of food and the exit of refugees. This technique involves less sophisticated chemistry, but it is still effective. Aid workers report hunger and malnutrition.
Through trial and error, Bashar al-Assad is finding ways to attack women and children that the world finds more acceptable.
Events in Syria strain recent historical comparisons. Only Syria and Afghanistan have experienced the displacement of more than 6 million people. Only the violence in Syria and Rwanda has displaced tens of thousands in a single day. A third of the Syrian population has been forced from their homes; perhaps 100,000 are dead.
As the conflict grows more chaotic, it becomes more opaque. Fewer journalists are willing to risk the growing anarchy, banditry and kidnapping. And the proliferation of rebel groups, some disturbingly radical, have left many confused about who to pull for. The result is a vast tragedy within Syria and a vast emotional numbing outside it.
Sooner or later the moral sensations return, leaving historians to wonder how such atrocities were allowed to recur. But Syria is not only a humanitarian nightmare. The rise of jihadist groups in the Syrian civil war — which had dissipated American sympathy for the rebellion — has also raised the strategic stakes of the conflict. The establishment of safe havens in large portions of Syria would destabilize the region and expand the capabilities and reach of global terrorism. (Recall what creative extremists accomplished from bases in Afghanistan.)
The main strategic question comes down to this: Who will be able to fight al-Qaeda? America doesn’t want the job. In Afghanistan and Iraq, we have spent tens of billions on training and equipment, attempting to transfer this role to their governments. In Syria, the government is brutal, sectarian and propped up by outsiders (Hezbollah and Iranian forces). Even with this support, Assad will not be able to re-establish effective control over regions he has alienated or savaged. He has shattered his legitimacy along with his country.
Few would disagree on the best outcome: An interim government composed of moderate opposition elements and members of the Assad regime (other than Assad) who want to be part of a new Syria — a government that can begin to reduce violence in much of the country while going after al-Qaeda. But Assad believes he is winning and that the chemical weapons deal assures the continuation of his power. And the moderate opposition is weak — caught in a two-front war against the regime and al-Qaeda, and inadequately supported by the United States.
America is accustomed to arming and training friendly governments, but the training of non-state actors is a riskier proposition. It has caused serious objections in Congress and in parts of the Obama administration. The resulting indecision has further complicated matters. The Syrian National Coalition — the main opposition umbrella group — has fractured in frustration. And aid to the responsible opposition has gotten no easier with every border checkpoint between Turkey and Syria controlled by extremists.
After years of inaction, America now stares some unpleasant strategic realities in the face: Six months from now, will any responsible opposition be left to support? Will America have any acceptable partners in the fight against al-Qaeda in Syria?
With limited leverage on the ground, American policy increasingly depends on a desperate Russian play. For a year and a half, the Obama administration has argued that Russia’s support for Assad is resulting in a disintegrating state that may transform northern Syria into Somalia or Yemen. Does this really serve Russian interests? If it was too risky to allow chemical weapons to float around in a disintegrating Syria — which terrorists might gain and use in Moscow — isn’t it also risky to allow terrorist havens so near Russia’s southern border? Wouldn’t it be better to offer Assad a nice dacha somewhere, allowing a consensus government to emerge out of peace negotiations?
The argument has the virtue of being correct. But there is no indication the Russians are buying it.
It is tempting — with civilians under siege, millions displaced, Congress conflicted, and Russia intransigent — to conclude that engagement is pointless because things could hardly get worse. Unfortunately, things could get much worse — unless someone in Syria is readied to oppose the extremists.
Michael Gerson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.