On one hand, we have not experienced a second terrorist assault on the scale of 9/11/01. Osama bin Laden has been eliminated, as have many of his lieutenants. That’s not nothing.
On the other hand, al-Qaida affiliates, commanded by bin Laden’s successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, are a threatening presence in more than a dozen countries. Al-Qaida’s close ally, the Taliban, is by no means defeated in Afghanistan. AQ has reconstituted in Iraq in the wake of the U.S. withdrawal. Its combatants have been flowing into Syria, where they are prominent among the rebel groups fighting the Assad regime — which is itself the cat’s paw of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Leslie Gelb, the sophisticated and intelligent president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, recently wrote that Iran “shares America’s concerns about Sunni fanaticism and jihadism.” Does he really not perceive that Iran’s rulers are Shiite fanatics and jihadists? Does he not understand the extent to which Iran’s 1979 “Islamic Revolution” inspired and challenged radical Sunnis to create al-Qaida? Is it not clear to him that both Sunni and Shiite jihadists share the same goal: “a world without America,” as former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad succinctly put it? A Middle East without America would represent a major milestone.
That’s why the Battle of Syria has become so important. That’s why Iran’s rulers are so committed to Bashar Assad, sending him not just money and weapons but also commanders, strategists and troops from their Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, as well from Hezbollah, their Lebanon-based foreign legion.
The al-Qaida forces in Syria, in particular Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), also are well-funded and well-armed, thanks to petroleum-rich sheiks sympathetic to their cause.
That leaves only those Syrians who reject jihadism — Sunni and Shiite varieties alike — as orphans. True, there were more of them and they were better positioned when peaceful protests against Assad first broke out more than two years ago. Hillary Clinton, David Petraeus and Leon Panetta were among those who urged President Barack Obama to support the nationalist opposition. He rejected their advice. A vacuum was created. AQ filled it.
Many people worry that any action taken against Assad now will boost the AQ forces. But that’s unlikely if weapons for self-defense are provided only to groups that have been “vetted” — as well as to the Syriacs (Syria’s ancient Christian communities), the Kurds and the Druze.
Jonathan Spyer, among the sharpest and most intrepid reporters covering Syria, has suggested to me that the time has come to imagine — and perhaps encourage — Syria splitting into no fewer than three entities. One would be ruled by Sunnis, the country’s majority population; one by the Alawites, Assad’s ethno-religious group, which fears genocide, should the dictator fall; one Kurdish — in fact, the Kurds have been successfully battling AQ in northeastern Syria. Maybe these entities could coexist within a loose confederation, with Syriacs and Druze enjoying substantial autonomy as well. If that doesn’t work, the breakup of Yugoslavia comes to mind.
America “cannot and should not be the world’s policeman,” U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power said last week. But she said that while urging Congress to authorize Obama to be the cop on the beat in the Levant.
On Tuesday night, Obama said almost exactly the same thing. Ask yourself: If the U.S. will not be the world’s policeman, who will? Don’t kid yourself that the United Nations is up to the task, or could be — or even should be. As Power noted, the U.N. Security Council “could not even agree to put out a press statement expressing its disapproval” of the slaughter of Syrian children.
Even with a policeman, the world will not be crime-free, nor will all criminals be brought to justice. But a world in which even the most fundamental laws go unenforced will soon devolve into a Hobbesian state of nature — a jungle.
Twelve years after the attacks of 9/11, this is where we are. On one hand, it could be worse. On the other hand, we’re not out of the woods yet — and from the look of the flora and fauna, we’re not heading toward civilization.
Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on national security.