The Syrian authorities and the international community have failed to protect civilians in Syria. In fact, the efforts of foreign governments to affect the outcome of the Syrian conflict have contributed to the escalation and increasingly sectarian nature of the violence.
Unwavering support by Russia and Iran for an Assad victory, including active participation in government military operations, has enabled the regime to wage its campaign of atrocities against Syrian civilians. At the same time, governments in the region, hoping to curtail Iranian influence in the Middle East through regime change in Iran’s most important client state, have permitted or supported the arming and funding of extremist jihadi groups and their infiltration into Syria.
Although many Western nations—including the United States—supported the original aim of the uprising to achieve a pluralistic democracy in Syria, they did not take effective action to make it a reality, handicapped by the Syrian opposition’s failure to present a united front. With the UN Security Council unable to agree on actions to protect Syrian civilians or to hold accountable those perpetrating international crimes in Syria, the UN and other international coalitions have focused on negotiating a resolution of the conflict, an effort that has failed to halt or curtail the fighting.
The transformation of the Syrian uprising into a sectarian conflict, combined with the failure of international policies, set the stage for the rise of the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS) in the spring of 2013. By the summer of 2014, IS had seized control of significant territory in Iraq as well as in Syria and was pursuing a horrific campaign of persecution and extermination against religious communities that did not share its brand of extremist Sunni Islamism. In response to the threat posed by IS to Iraq, the United States and several Arab states began a bombing campaign against IS forces in Iraq in August 2014 and launched air strikes against IS fighters in Syria soon after.
The Syrian conflict now endangers security and other interests throughout the region and the world. Extremist forces fighting in Syria are acquiring arms and experience that enable them to carry jihad to even farther places, including Russia and Europe; to take on Iran’s proxy, Hezbollah; and to threaten United States’ interests. The atrocities being committed by both sides of the conflict are fanning the flames of sectarian hatred in the Middle East, North Africa, and even farther. The conflict has already metastasized to Iraq, and threatens to lead to the proliferation of terrorism and political instability throughout the region.