The time has come for the United States to take decisive action in Syria. It cannot do so without running all of the risks that have existed since the crisis began. It cannot control all the arms it sends and some may fall into the hands terrorist and extremists. It cannot control the government that emerges if Bashar al-Assad falls. It cannot be sure that an extreme Sunni Islamist regime will not emerge that will be more of a threat to friendly Arab states and Israel than Assad and make the prospect of a war between Sunnis and Shi'ites/Alewites in the Islamic world even worse. The United States cannot count on winning UN support or Russian tolerance or having the same nations and voices that call for U.S. action today not being critics tomorrow.
But, there are times when the risks of inaction outweigh the very real risks of action. For all the talk of sarin and "redlines," the United States has far greater reasons for action than the scattered use of small amounts of chemical weapons that may have killed 140 people. In fact, the "discovery" that Syria used chemical weapons may well be a political ploy. It seems very like that the administration has had virtually all the same evidence for weeks if not months. The real reasons are the broader humanitarian issues involved and far more urgent U.S. strategic interests.
Ironically, on the same day the White House made its announcement that chemical weapons might have killed 140 Syrians, the United Nations announced that the total death toll had risen to at least 92,901 killings, with more than 5,000 killings documented every month since July 2012 and a total of just under 27,000 new killings since December 1, 2012. These totals were only a fraction of the 263,055 killings reported to the United Nations. Moreover, there are virtually no cases where the number of seriously wounded and disabled does not at least match the number of dead, and the ratio is often two or three to one.
These numbers make the limited use of chemical weapons seem like an almost meaningless redline. Moreover, the most serious impact of the Syrian civil war is not its casualties, but the fact that it has disrupted the entire educational, medical, and economic structure of a weak and horribly misgoverned state, created millions of refugees, and steadily polarized the nation along Sunni and Alewite lines while threatening every other minority.
There are no accurate counts, but there are at least 120,000 refugees in one camp in Jordan near the border. There are roughly 500,000 total refugees in Jordan, a country in an economic crisis that already had massive numbers of refugees from Iraq. There are at least 200,000 more registered refugees in Turkey, and the number may well be much higher. Turkish officials report that some 290,000 more may exist outside the refugee camps and that their relief infrastructure can only support around 100,000 refugees, even though Turkey has built 14 tent cities.
If one includes Lebanon and other external refugees, Reuters estimates put the total number of Syrians who are refugees outside their country at around 1.4 million, with 200,000 more unregistered or waiting to register. There are often families, families with no jobs or token jobs, lost homes and businesses, and children with no or minimal education.
It is almost certain that well over a million other refugees or internally displaced persons (IDP) have had to leave their homes, jobs or business, and schools inside Syria, and millions more now live in fear of their Sunni or Alewite neighbors, the Assad regime and militias, and the extremist factions among the rebels. This brings the total to at least 2.4 million out of a population of 22.5 million, and the total whose lives have been shattered may well be over 5 million. The dead are dead, the wounded heal, but the legacy of massive refugees and sectarian division and hatred has effects that go on for decades. And the more the conflict drags out, the more Syria's people become divided and become refugees, and the worse the humanitarian disaster will get.
From a more selfish viewpoint, the Syrian civil war has also escalated in ways that pose a steadily growing strategic threat to the United States and its allies. It has already caused serious instability in Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey. It has pushed Israel into moving troops and reinforcing its security barriers on the Golan Heights, as well as increasing preparations for a possible war with Hezbollah.
Most significantly, it has strengthened Iran's role in Syria, where Iran has become a critical source of arms and money. A credible Alewite source has reported that Iran now has three training camps for Assad's Alewite militias, evidently run by the Iranian al Quds force with Hezbollah support. If Assad either defeats the rebels or controls most of a divided Syria, he will be far more dependent on Iran than ever before.