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The conflict in Syria, now in its ninth year, started as a peaceful domestic uprising against an autocratic dictator. Over the course of the war, the Syrian theater has evolved into the crucible for a complex series of intersecting conflicts that have distracted and diminished U.S. allies and partners, positioned adversaries and competitors to shape the future of the Middle East, victimized millions of Syrians and fast-tracked a race to the bottom for the conduct of future wars.
Syria under the Assad regime has long posed a threat to U.S. national security interests. In 1979, the United States designated Syria as a state sponsor of terrorism. The Assad family has survived in power by operating at the intersection of criminal webs and terrorist networks. Before the 2011 uprising, Bashar al-Assad’s Syria provided a permissive environment for both al-Qaida and Iran, another state sponsor of terrorism. Assad facilitated and encouraged the movement of al-Qaida operatives to Iraq to conduct attacks against U.S. forces. At the same time, Assad allowed Iran to extend its Shia militant network across Syria and into Lebanon in order to threaten Israel.
Syria is now a breeding ground for terrorist organizations committed to attacking the United States, the front line for Iranian power projection and the main stage for Russia’s return to the region. Each of these actors is now better positioned to influence Syria’s future than the United States and its allies and partners. Meanwhile, massive refugee outflows from Syria — whether fleeing the Assad regime’s brutality or ISIS’s depravity — are exacerbating the economic fragility of Syria’s neighbors and influencing electoral outcomes in Europe.
America should not stand idly by or back away. Russia now seeks to translate its battlefield successes on behalf of the Assad regime into a political victory and reassert itself as a great power on the international stage. Iran is working to entrench its influence in the Assad regime’s security architecture; integrate its political, economic and cultural influence across Syrian society and cement a permanent base from which to project power into the Mediterranean and threaten Israel.
ISIS, al-Qaida and its offshoots and other violent extremist organizations retain military capabilities and the intent to plot external attacks. This is not a frozen conflict but rather a dynamic and evolving one, which continues to endanger the Syrian people, destabilize Syria’s neighbors and threaten U.S. interests in the region and beyond.
Immediate gratification is no excuse for deserting our allies, the Kurds in Syria this year, the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan in 1989, the Shah of Iran in 1979 and the Mountagnards in Vietnam in 1973. The U.S.’commitment should be honored.