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The Syria Quagmire

Members of Congress, both Democratic and Republican, continue urging President Obama to take a more aggressive role in the Syria war.

This month, Senator Carl Levin, the Michigan Democrat who’s chairman of the Armed Services Committee, called for “limited targeted” airstrikes and other actions against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces. Several other senators endorsed his remarks, and the debate continues almost every day.

But the most realistic view came from General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In a letter to Congress this month, he warned that after taking any military action, “we must be prepared for the unintended consequences of our actions.” And what might those consequences be? A nasty fight to determine who will take Assad’s place.

“Deeper involvement is hard to avoid,” Dempsey added.

Today, Syria presents the most complicated internal insurgency, with more malign actors, than any in recent times.

Consider the players: Assad, the ruthless dictator who shows no reluctance to kill as many of his own people as necessary to keep his hold on power—at least 100,000 civilians so far, the United Nations says. Another two million Syrians are refugees in bordering states that are increasingly being drawn into the conflict, and 4.5 million others are internally displaced within their own country. Altogether, that’s about 35 percent of Syria’s population.

Russia refuses to stop sending arms to Assad and defending Syria in the UN Security Council. Just after Vladimir Putin agreed with US Secretary of State John Kerry that it was time to stage a Syria peace conference, Russia promised a shipment of S-300 advanced missile defense systems to Damascus.

The groups vying for power are the Syrian army on one side facing army deserters and others who have joined the anti-government rebels. Also fighting against the regime are the Nusra Front, an al-Qaeda affiliate that recently made a unification pact with the Islamic State of Iraq, another al-Qaeda group.

And then there’s Hezbollah, an Iran surrogate whose leader, Hassan Nasrallah, has vowed to fight to the death to keep Assad in power. Iran is also sending weapons and fighters to defend Assad. Hundreds of Hezbollah terrorists are fighting side by side with Syrian soldiers. Iraqi Shiites have joined the fight on behalf of Assad, while the state’s Sunnis are fighting with the rebels.

Meantime, Saudi Arabian and Turkish fighters are filtering into the country to fight with the rebels, and jihadists are beginning to stream in from the West. The Saudi and Qatari government are also supplying the rebels with copious weapons, while Russia continues to arm government forces, and Iran supplies Assad with even more weaponry and on-the-ground military guidance. The Iraqi government, meanwhile, refuses American requests to intercept overflights of Iranian planes headed to Syria.

Today, Assad’s forces are gaining ground largely because the rebels and jihadists are spending too much time fighting and killing each other. For that reason among others, US intelligence officials say they believe this conflict could continue for years.

Meantime, the United States and Europe dither over what to do.

For the Obama administration, one important factor is American public opinion. A New York Times/CBS news poll this spring found that two-thirds of Americans do not believe the US has the responsibility to intervene in Syria.

These people certainly realize: What could the United States possibly accomplish by plunging into that toxic stew?

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