5. Syria: Proceed with Caution
The murder of four U.S. diplomats in Benghazi likely crushed the hope, held by some Syrian rebels, that Washington will lead an international intervention to topple the Assad regime in the way that it helped Libyans to dispatch Gaddafi. That scenario had always been a long shot, of course, with U.S. officials strenuously warning from the beginning of the rebellion that Syria was different and that militarizing the uprising would not bring the cavalry to the rescue.
Over the 18 months of the Syrian uprising, concerns have only grown over the consequences of toppling Assad, his brutality notwithstanding. There’s the growing prospect of a regionwide conflagration, and Syria already seems deep in the throes of a sectarian civil war. The regime retains the loyalty of a hard core of Alawites, while the rebel forces are overwhelmingly Sunni — and Thursday’s report by Britain’s Telegraph that the Christians of Aleppo have formed a militia to fight against the rebels (while the Kurds in the northeast stake out a de facto autonomous statelet) underscore the risks.
(PHOTOS: Syria’s Slow-Motion Civil War)
But there could also be a visceral response to the fact that the same black flag carried by those who attacked the U.S. facilities in Cairo, Benghazi and Sana‘a has been flown by some rebel fighting units in Syria, where a small but unmistakable Salafist element (comprising foreign and local fighters) is trying to claim a growing role in the uprising. The proxy-war strategy adopted by the Gulf states led by Saudi Arabia, on the basis that the Assad regime is a close ally of Iran, has seen a strengthening of some such groups operating in both Lebanon and Syria.
Although their relative strength is hard to assess, Salafist groups, including large numbers of foreign fighters, are sufficiently engaged in the struggle against the Assad regime in Syria to give many in Washington pause. Those who most favor intervention are arguing that the Salafist surge elsewhere simply highlights the need to bring Syria’s conflict to an end by toppling the regime, mindful that extremist influence is more likely to grow in a prolonged war. Skeptics will see in the causes of the events of recent days a vindication of restraint.