Syria: When Stagnant Policies Become Dangerous

June 6, 2014

What happens when a violent conflict, that has already claimed the lives of over 140,000 people, continues with no end in sight? Very little, by the looks of our policy on Syria. Sadly, the longer the conflict drags on, the more that the moderate voices who represent the vast majority of the Syrian people are being drowned out by extremists on all sides. This is a disservice to the righteous cause of freedom which Syrians are striving for.

During his foreign policy speech at West Point last week, President Obama addressed the Syria crisis solely through a counterterrorism lens, revealing a disturbing lack of urgency. Our moral failure to protect the Syrian children, of whom 13,000 have been killed and 4.5 million displaced, could foster a lost generation which presents easy prey for Al-Qaeda and the like.

U.S. Ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, recently resigned from his post saying, “I was no longer in a position where I felt I could defend the American policy. We have been unable to address either the root causes of the conflict in terms of the fighting on the ground and the balance on the ground, and we have a growing extremism threat.”

A conflict that began three years sparked by a people’s aspiration for freedom, justice and human dignity against an oppressive tyrant has snowballed into an array of armed groups who are not only fighting the Al-Assad regime but also one other and innocent Syrians. The growing presence of foreign fighters has contributed to this milieu.

Just weeks ago, an unidentified American citizen reportedly carried out a suicide bombing in Syria, “making him the first United States citizen believed to have been involved in such an attack.” Even more alarming is intelligence and counterterrorism officials’ belief that more than 70 Americans have traveled to Syria to engage in the fight against Al-Assad.

In MPAC’s 2013 policy paper, “On Intervention in Syria,” we warned against this phenomenon: “Historically, Syria has not seen extremist, violent elements as indigenous of Syrian religious or political life. However, as the instability and killing in Syria continues, the involvement and influence of these extremist groups has continued to rise. The international community needs to recognize that the sooner this conflict is settled, the sooner the extremist elements can be mitigated.”  

Groups like Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State for Iraq and Syria (ISIS) are utilizing social media to recruit individuals to join the fight, leading the BBC to label this “the most socially mediated conflict in history.” Such extremist groups have the terrifying potential to drown out the sea of moderate voices who represent the sentiments of most Syrians.

With pseudo-scholars from these groups and others taking to the Internet to encourage Muslims worldwide to travel to Syria to join the fight, we must take action in our own communities to deal with such issues before they come back to bite us. MPAC’s Safe Spaces Initiative: Tools for Developing Health Communities equips community leaders to work preventively to deal with such issues before they become problems both online and in the real world.

As the conflict continues to rage on, we must take leadership in facilitating healthy debates within our communities about how the U.S. should proceed with its Syrian policy. We must also push back against the insanity propagated by extremist groups who are luring individuals into the conflict, expanding the consequences of the ongoing conflict, and undermining the legitimate struggle of the Syrian people to realize their freedom in the process.

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