The uprising in Syria is only getting bloodier. Prominent human rights organizations have estimated that the death toll from the conflict now exceeds 30,000 people. And it is only getting worse: More than 300 people were reportedly killed on Sept. 26, making it one of the uprising's bloodiest days. Unsurprisingly, there has also been a corresponding spike in the number of people fleeing the carnage. The Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees now puts the number of Syrian refugees at 235,300, with 103,416 people seeking asylum in just August. Those are registered refugees -- the real number escaping Syria is likely to be significantly higher.
As hard as it is to believe, the next chapter of the Syrian uprising -- after the fall of President Bashar al-Assad -- may be even more challenging. The protests in front of U.S. embassies in Cairo, Tunis, and Sanaa -- as well as the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya -- suggest that ending an autocracy is only the beginning of a long, complicated post-Arab Spring rebuilding process. Unlike in Tunisia or Egypt, the odds of a successful transition to democracy may be even lower for Syria; research by Gene Sharp and others suggests that violent revolutions more often than not result in new, illiberal governments.
This leaves Syria with a paradox: The more rebels wage a war against the Assad regime, the less likely they are to achieve democracy, reconstruction, or reconciliation. It also leaves the United States with a paradox: The longer it declines to intervene, the greater the costs -- the more deeply embedded Islamist radicals become and the stronger the enmity between Syria's ethnicities and sects grows.
The guns of Syria's August are not growing quiet in September. The reality is that Syria will only get worse in the absence of international intervention. And whatever help the United States provides now will be dwarfed by what it will be asked to contribute in helping the country rebuild. This month at a conference in Berlin, the Syrian National Council estimated that $12 billion would be needed for immediate support in the first six months after the fall of the regime.
But Syria's troubles run deeper than its present crisis -- indeed, the country has several fundamental flaws that together will comprise America's greatest foreign-policy challenge in the Middle East.
First, regional powers view Syria's diversity as an opportunity to establish permanent bases of influence. As in Lebanon, Syria's future political parties will likely owe their allegiances to regional benefactors. With little experience in democratic competition, they will be ripe for regional powers such as Turkey, Iran, and the Arab Gulf countries to effectively buy sizable voting blocs. In addition to these conflicting international influences, the country's ethnic and sectarian tensions will cripple effective post-Assad governance. There will be violent consequences of this political fallout, as deep scars from the present conflict will likely lead to simmering violence in the post-Assad period.