It's Time to Act in Syria

American values and interests are at stake in stopping the country's slow-motion destruction.

There can be no doubt that the conflict in Syria confronts the United States with terrible challenges. The humanitarian catastrophe gets worse by the day: Nearly a quarter of Syria's population may now be displaced from their homes, and the death toll approaches 80,000 -- and continues to rise inexorably.

But it is not just our conscience that is affected by this gruesome war. America's interests are also involved because the Syrian conflict is unlikely to remain confined to Syria. As the country unravels, more refugees will flee to neighboring states and more armed groups will gain strength -- threatening each of Syria's neighbors with increased instability.

Even if al Qaeda does not establish itself in what may be the emerging failed state of Syria, the refugee flow already constitutes a growing danger to Jordan, Lebanon, and Iraq. According to the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, more than 400,000 Syrians have applied for refugee status in Jordan and Lebanon, while 100,000 Syrians have done the same in Iraq. None of these states can easily absorb the numbers -- and in the case of Lebanon and Iraq, the refugee influx might rekindle civil conflicts we hoped were relegated to the past. Turkey might face less of a problem in this regard and could also be more capable of managing the growing number of refugees -- but it is also facing growing difficulties managing the refugee camps on its territory. Already there have been riots in the camps, and we should not assume these are one-time events.

But it is not just the flow of refugees that endangers Syria's neighbors and the region. The impending disintegration of the Syrian state means that it will no longer have centralized control of its chemical weapons. If nothing is done beforehand to gain control of these weapons -- or destroy them -- it is not only Syria's neighbors that will be in grave danger.

The Syrian conflict, then, challenges U.S. values and interests. In the American tradition of foreign policy, we have often seen two schools of thought: idealism and realism. The idealists have been driven by moral and humanitarian concerns. They see U.S. interests engaged when American values are threatened, and they justify U.S. intervention, including use of force, when there is a high moral purpose. For the idealists, the genocide in Rwanda, in which at least 500,000 members of the Tutsi minority were murdered while the United States stood by, represented an unforgivable blight on America's conscience. Idealists would argue that the United States should have acted militarily to prevent genocide.

Realists, on the other hand, argue that the United States should only intervene when it has vital interests at stake. They view humanitarian interventions as costly, an emotional binge that inevitably comes back to haunt the country -- making it even less capable of intervening when U.S. interests actually require it. For the realists, the United States should only intervene when it is directly threatened -- or when a strategic ally, the wider flow of oil, or broader U.S. credibility is at risk. The Gulf War met that test, but President George W. Bush's war in Iraq and President Barack Obama's intervention in Libya did not.

It is rare that idealists and realists find common ground. But ironically, the unfolding conflict in Syria is one where idealists and realists should come together. There is a moral imperative to try to stop the onslaught against the Syrian population. But there is also a strong U.S. national security imperative to at least contain the conflict in Syria, ensure that the regime's chemical weapons do not fall into al Qaeda's hands, and prevent the neighborhood from being destabilized.

When described in this fashion, it all seems so clear. The problem, of course, is that the United States is emerging from over a decade of war -- having spent a great deal in blood and treasure -- and Syria is a mess. The opposition to President Bashar al-Assad has never been coherent, and Islamists have now seemingly gained the upper hand in the opposition's ranks. Syria's non-Sunni minorities fear what would come after Assad, who for his part has stoked the sectarian conflict in an attempt to preserve his regime.

The zero-sum nature of the conflict makes it hard to create a political process that brings elements of the opposition together with members of the regime who don't have blood on their hands. The continuing Russian and Iranian protection of the Assad regime also reduces the prospect of Assad choosing to go. And as long as he remains, it is highly unlikely that there will be a political process to manage the transition. While a political process is unquestionably desirable, it is not made more likely by the ongoing military stalemate, which only raises the costs and deepens the sectarian divide.

The fact that the United States has a great stake in the Syrian conflict -- from both an idealist and a realist point of view -- does not make any of these problems easier to deal with. Still, it is hard to see how the country has a choice. Obama has said that the use of chemical weapons -- or the regime's loss of control of these weapons -- would be a game-changer. Given the direction of the conflict, it is not hard to see that sooner or later we are going to face such a situation.

So what can and should we do now? First, we need to focus on what can be done to change the balance of forces on the ground -- not only between the opposition and the regime, but more importantly within the opposition itself. Second, we need to do more to protect the Syrian population. And, third, we need to focus on containing the conflict so it does not spread outside Syria and destabilize the surrounding states.

When it comes to the first priority, if you talk to any secular members of the opposition, as I have, they will tell you that they simply are not getting the money and arms that the Islamists are receiving. Some may argue that the Islamists -- like Jabhat al-Nusra, which has pledged its loyalty to al Qaeda -- have proved themselves on the battlefield more than any of the secular forces. That is probably true, but they have also had the means to do so.

The reality is that if the United States is to have influence, it will have to provide lethal assistance as well as nonlethal aid. There is no reason we cannot identify groups the United States is prepared to support and then test their ability to uphold the commitments they make and account for the arms America provides. The United States is already vetting those to whom it provides nonlethal assistance -- it can certainly do the same for those who would get arms. Indeed, the quality and the quantity of arms provided -- including anti-tank weapons -- can be calibrated to reflect their performance on their commitments. Put simply, it is an illusion to think that the United States will be able to affect the realities on the ground without providing lethal assistance.

If we are concerned that Islamists are too powerful and could come to power, the answer is surely not to hope that Assad does not fall too quickly. The answer must be to strengthen the capabilities of those who seek a nonsectarian, inclusive Syria in the future.

Second, we must do more to respond to the needs of the Syrian public. This has two dimensions: providing security and meeting humanitarian needs. While I favor a no-fly zone and don't believe that it runs the risks that its critics have identified, I understand the fear of mission creep. There is, however, an alternative -- what I call a no-fly zone on the cheap. The United States and its NATO allies now have Patriot missile batteries on the Turkey-Syria border, and they could engage aircraft at least 50 miles into Syria.

Why not declare that any Syrian military aircraft flying within 50 miles of the border will be deemed to have hostile intent and will be shot down by the Patriots? Would Assad challenge this? He would do so at high risk to his regime and at a time when the attrition of his air forces has to be a factor in his calculus. Fifty miles would offer protection from air assaults in Aleppo, Syria's largest city, and effectively create more protection for areas where opposition forces are in control. It would have the benefit of doing something meaningful to protect Syrian civilians and finally signal that we are not prepared to sit idly by in the face of the indiscriminate use of force against them.

As important as it is to offer protection, it is also clear that more must be done to meet the basic humanitarian needs of the Syrian people displaced by the conflict. The United Nations feels legally bound to provide humanitarian assistance primarily through the Syrian regime -- despite the fact that Assad denies aid to areas outside its control, which now includes large swaths of the country.

To the Obama administration's credit, it has already been working through NGOs outside the regime's control -- but the United States must, on its own and with others, find ways to significantly expand the assistance that is going to Syrians in need. The sad truth is that most displaced Syrians within the country are not receiving anything close to what is needed -- conveying again what appears to be the indifference of the international community to the war being waged against Syrian civilians.

Finally, we must hedge against the disintegration of Syria. I often say that Las Vegas rules don't apply here: What happens in Syria won't stay in Syria. We need a containment strategy, and that means thinking about how buffers can be built up in southern Syria, along part of the Syria-Iraq border, and in the north. Investing in local governance -- as part of a coherent framework with the British, French, Saudis, Emiratis, Jordanians, Turks, and others -- may be a way to hedge against the unknowns of the future and increase Syrians' willingness to stay put and shape their own future.

With all the difficulties and unknowns that currently exist in Syria, one thing is clear: While there are costs in acting, the costs of inaction are growing by the day. Ironically, the costs of inaction may not only be felt in Syria, with the Syrian public, and in the surrounding areas. Inaction may also have implications for America's Iran policy. If we want diplomacy to work with Iran on the nuclear issue, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei must be convinced that the United States will actually use force if negotiations fail -- and America's hesitant posture toward Syria signals not readiness to use force, but reluctance.

For all these reasons, and before we face a game-changing event that will leave America no choice, it is time to become more active in Syria. Positioning the United States to try to shape the landscape, and not simply react to changes in it, makes sense from the standpoint of U.S. interests. But it also makes sense from the standpoint of America's values -- and the sooner the better.

Dan Kitwood/Getty Images


Mostly Quiet on the Western Front

Why isn’t terrorism in the United States a whole lot more frequent?

While the horrific bombing at the Boston Marathon has brought concerns about terrorism back to the forefront of national attention, it is worth remembering that terrorism inside the United States is exceedingly rare. Over the past 40 years, about 11 people per year have been killed by acts of terrorism (excluding the 9/11 attacks). To put this in some context, over 122,000 Americans died from accidental injury in 2011, while 53,000 died from the flu and pneumonia. Terrorism is also rarer now than in past decades -- there were 1,357 terrorist attacks in the United States in the 1970s, but only 168 in the 10 years after 9/11.

Our instincts tell us that terrorism ought to be quite common. In our open, modernized society where dangerous technology is cheap and prevalent, it is not difficult to figure out how to cause massive harm. Instructions on making pipe bombs or other incendiary devices are only a Google search away. Equipment to make bombs, like the ones detonated in Boston, requires not much more than a trip to RadioShack and a hardware store. There is also no shortage of targets. Large numbers of people are frequently gathering together in places that have little or no security presence, whether at high school football games, bus stations, or dance recitals. After 9/11 or an event like the Boston attack, we often think "it would be so easy to [fill in the blank] and cause massive damage." And it's true.

Then why doesn't it happen more often?

The main reason is that there just aren't that many would-be terrorists in the United States. Even though we live in a violent society where about 15,000 murders occur every year, terrorism is a specialized form of violence that is attractive to only a very few people. Most violent crime results from domestic confrontations, the illegal drug trade, and ordinary street-level disputes. Terrorism, however, is the use of violence to advance a political purpose. Terrorists generally have deep grievances about the state of the world and want to draw attention to their causes through the most dramatic fashion possible -- the use of violence to cause death and destruction.

But the process of moving from a law-abiding citizen to violent killer in the name of politics is not an easy path to follow. Many things can divert the would-be terrorist along the way: interest in the cause can wane, a family member might need help, the prospect of martyrdom loses its glamour and appeal, or any number of other factors. People who begin down the radicalization process often disengage from the terrorist enterprise or lose their ideological zeal. Very few individuals with extremist views ultimately undergo the psychological transformation that brings them to the point of causing violence against innocents. Moreover, the number of Americans who have such deep-seated political grievances that they are motivated to commit violence just to make a point is tiny.

In fact, many Americans couldn't care less about politics. Those who do generally accept the normal rule that disagreements are decided through elections or legislation. Sure, there is vitriol in American politics. But free speech and debate serves as a release valve for pent-up ideological animosities. Terrorists are the rare birds who become psychologically attached to a political cause and reject normal politics as a means for addressing their grievances.

While no domestic controversies have resulted in serious enough grievances to sustain significant amounts of terrorism over the past 50 years, the al Qaeda movement that emerged in the 1990s did generate significant numbers of terrorists abroad hostile to the United States. They were motivated by a perception that U.S. foreign policy and other assertions of power have had a derogatory impact on Islam and those who practice it around the world. The 9/11 attacks were such a shock, in part, because Americans did not understand the depth of this movement or their vulnerability to an enemy willing, even eager, to die for a cause.

Despite the controversies surrounding some elements of the response to 9/11, by and large, it has been remarkably effective in preventing al Qaeda-inspired terrorism inside the United States. Since 9/11, there have been no successful attacks inside U.S. borders planned and executed by foreign nationals emanating from abroad -- and only 10 successful homegrown attacks, which have caused just 17 deaths. This is a record most would have thought impossible in the nervous days and months after September 2001.

The key elements of this counterterrorism strategy have been the application of military force by the United States and its partners in strategic areas around the world, a globally coordinated intelligence collection effort, a large scale shift of federal law enforcement resources to preventing terrorism, a much more rigorous vetting of visa applicants from high-risk countries, and greater border security and immigration controls.

The use of force abroad has reduced the supply of active terrorists by killing many senior al Qaeda members and dampening the allure of al Qaeda to potential recruits. The adventure of training in the Hindu Kush and fighting against foreign infidels once had a romantic allure to many -- hiding from American drones in the hinterlands of Pakistan does not.

We have also benefitted from a strategically inept enemy. Al Qaeda's intolerance and brutality has managed to alienate local populations wherever they have gained a foothold. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb is so despised by most Malians that they cheered the tanks of their former colonial oppressors as they rolled through Timbuktu to chase out the extremists. It is true that al Qaeda has formed affiliate groups that have spread to Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia, but it appears recently that most of them are more focused on addressing regional grievances than attacking the United States proper. Notice how quickly the Pakistani Taliban disavowed any connection to the attacks in Boston.

Tightened immigration controls have undoubtedly made it more difficult for foreign terrorists to get to the United States. We know this is true because al Qaeda shifted its strategy from attempting to sneak trained foreign operatives into the United States to recruiting individuals who already live within the country to launch homegrown attacks. While this strategy showed some early initial success with the Fort Hood shooting and attempted explosives attacks on New York by Najibullah Zazi and Faisal Shahzad, it has fizzled of late. In 2009, 50 Muslim Americans were arrested for participating in a terrorist plots; by 2012, that number had dropped to 14 -- and only two Muslim Americans have been arrested on terrorism charges so far in 2013.   

Terrorism also continues to be rare in the United States because the substantial resources committed to law enforcement agencies have enabled them to preempt most of the terrorist plots initiated since 9/11 prior to any violence occurring. These successful prosecutions appear to have resulted from the use of tried and true investigative tactics and techniques -- with hints and clues coming from the community and informants leading to warrants for electronic surveillance that ultimately produce evidence to support an arrest. Potential terrorists also leave many clues in chatrooms and social media sites. The public perception is that terrorists are criminal masterminds, but most are not: many of them like to boast of their grand ideas and plans for violence to others, either in person or on the Internet. But once they do, they usually come to the attention of the police and ultimately find themselves behind bars.

And yet, the fact that terrorism is rare is little solace to the victims of the brutal attack that killed three young people and caused so many devastating injuries in Boston. This attack was a sobering reminder that terrorism is not going to disappear anytime soon. But it would be a mistake to assume that a new wave of terrorism has begun. Americans are more likely to be struck by lightning than killed in a terrorist attack. We have to keep this in mind in determining how our society and our government should respond to the attack on the Boston Marathon.

Correction: an earlier version of this article misstated the number of deaths per year from terrorist attacks within the United States. It is roughly 11 per year, not just over three. 

Spencer Platt/Getty Images