It is now two months until the inauguration in Washington, and it would be nice if the world went into a postelection recess for the Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s holidays. With Israel facing elections on January 22, there might once have been some hope for a brief respite. Alas, events in the Middle East are heating up and are likely to keep getting hotter this winter and into the spring.
Until this week the hottest crisis was in Syria, where the death total is now around 40,000?—?with about 10 times that number as refugees and many hundreds of thousands more as internally displaced persons. American policy has, at least until now, been to combine diplomatic activity with military and intelligence passivity. American, EU, and Arab pressure got the Syrian opposition to offer a new, unified face to the world last week, but that unity will be useless unless it elicits more military help. Bashar al-Assad cannot defeat the rebels, but with more help they can defeat him. Optimists think the recent American diplomatic efforts are the precursor to a new, postelection activism that sees us getting more arms to the opposition so they can seize and keep more territory in northern Syria and then begin to move south toward Damascus.
And the departure of CIA director David Petraeus may even help here, for he was reported to be extremely cautious about ramping up the CIA’s role in the Syria crisis. Chances are, then, that Syria will see more fighting in the next few months. A no-fly zone remains unlikely, especially if the rebels appear to be making gains without one. If the rebels win, the administration will next year claim that it handled things perfectly well and that critics who argued for a greater American role sooner were just mindless hawks or?—?worse yet?—?neoconservatives! But the fall of Assad will only inaugurate the next stage in the Syria crisis, as jihadist, Muslim Brotherhood, and more moderate and secular elements of the opposition struggle for power. Here the administration’s passivity?—?allowing the crisis to drag on for two years?—?may prove to have been catastrophic. The jihadist presence in Syria was tiny and unimportant when the war began, but grew monthly as Sunnis watched the regime slaughter their brethren while Western powers did little or nothing. Will the jihadists just go home when Assad falls, or make more trouble in the neighborhood? Will the Brotherhood prove to be the best organized group while moderates are divided and feckless, as happened in Egypt? The time to have helped those moderate forces?—?with guns, to be sure they were a powerful part of the victorious coalition, and with humanitarian aid, to be sure they could buy influence and show the benefits of their Western ties?—?is about over. The Obama administration muffed this, and Syria and its neighbors will all pay the price over the next few years.