In his 2014 State of the Union address, President Obama alluded to the national security doctrine he hopes to pursue in the upcoming year. The president envisions a United States that is vigilant in foreign affairs, as when he said “We must fight battles that need to be fought, not those that terrorists prefer from us.”
Which battles will we fight, then? In his address, the Commander-in-Chief listed usual suspects — combating al-Qaeda, ending the war in the Middle East, thwarting Iran’s nuclear weapons program. Between outlining troop removal from Afghanistan and vowing to veto any new sanctions on Iran, Obama briefly acknowledged the United States’s role in the ongoing civil war in Syria. In true political vernacular, the President managed to say something without saying anything at all: “We will continue to work with the international community to usher in the future the Syrian people deserve — a future free of dictatorship, terror and fear.”
In stark contrast to September 2013, President Obama’s mention of Syria is one of few in the mainstream media. Once an agreement was conjured up to destroy the regime’s chemical weapons, which it had used against the opposition, Syria sunk back into the foreign policy shadows.
THE EDITORS: Surprise, surprise.
But removing Syria’s chemical weapons has been more difficult than the informal agreement made out, and recent peace talks have also proved insubstantial, with each side refusing to cooperate. The conflict rages on, with an average of 100 fatalities per day and a total of 4.2 million people displaced.
Now that President Obama’s “red line” seems to have disappeared, why is Syria of interest to American foreign policy makers? To simplify matters, the answer lies in its geographic location. To Syria’s north is NATO ally Turkey, to its south is strategic ally Jordan and on both sides are Lebanon and Iraq, with Israel nearby.
The United States should therefore not be as concerned with the internal conflict as much as spillover into the region. According to the UNHCR, there are over 500,000 Syrian refugees in Turkey and 600,000 in Jordan. In Jordan alone, a UN provisional overview estimated that it will cost $3.2 billion to sustain the refugee population in 2014. Turkey has already witnessed violent spillover, and recently closed its borders to Syrian refugees as a safety precaution.
Evidently, our two essential allies in the region are feeling the weight of their unexpected role as a refugee sanctuary. Jordan, a resource-poor nation, is witnessing an intrusion of Syrians into the labor and housing markets, making it more difficult for Jordanians to find jobs and apartments. Turkey has already sought assistance to their crises from elsewhere, partnering with China on a recent defense contract.
Syria is just another missing piece in the puzzle of Middle East stability. This puzzle is far more complicated than it appears from a map, involving religious divides, resource wars, intricate terrorist networks and an overall attitude of disdain toward Western assistance and interference. As far as Syria is concerned, the United States should follow its current policy of non-intervention.
Hypothetically speaking, should we become involved in Syria militarily, what would our endgame be? Toppling Assad would open the country to democratization, but a recent World Bank report on post-conflict indicators details that successful democratization could take up to 10 years, with other studies estimating upwards of 30. With troop removal in Afghanistan well under way, it is unlikely we will send them to the U.S. by way of Damascus.
While the United States must be mindful of the effect this conflict is having on our allies, it should remain on the sideline of this battle.
—Sarah Smith is a senior studying international affairs and history
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