Syria as a Continuing Danger
We ignore Syria at our peril. After almost eleven years, the Syrian conflict is as acutely dangerous an international security problem as ever. What began in 2011 as a popular revolt against Bashar al-Assad’s rule quickly expanded into a regional conflict that has no end in sight. With five external military forces jostling with each other in or over Syria (Russia, Iran, Turkey, the United States, and Israel), the potential for intrastate conflict in any given week is high. Syria is the source of the world’s largest refugee crisis, with about twelve million Syrians–half of the country’s prewar population–either registered as refugees or internally displaced.1 The country is a cockpit of terrorism, with Al Qaeda, ISIS, and other such groups present in large numbers and sometimes controlling territory. Bashar al-Assad’s determination to maintain vast chemical weapons makes Syria the world’s most glaring WMD problem as well. The Assad regime’s mass killing and jailing of hundreds of thousands of Syrians makes it the worst human rights problem of the 21st century. Add to these horrors the recent development that the Assad regime has become a major narco-state.
The internal war among Syrian political factions shows no sign of resolving itself. After a decade of war, the country is de facto partitioned into three zones: the rump failed state ruled by Assad, containing perhaps 10 million Syrians; a de facto Turkish protectorate of opposition-held territories in the northwest with about five million Syrians; and a de facto U.S. protectorate in the northeast with about four million Syrians under the control of the Kurdish-led Syrian democratic forces. Assad finds himself without the military or financial means of reconquering the other two zones, and the world finds Assad without any inclination to make peace with the other two. In short, Syria remains a tense battlefield with all the necessary ingredients to flare into broader warfare at any time.