What Lessons Should We Learn from Syria?

As the conflict grinds on, here’s what we’ve come to learn.

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Robert Nolan is an editor at the Foreign Policy Association and producer of the Great Decisions in Foreign Policy television series on PBS. You can follow him on Twitter @robert_nolan.

As the civil war in Syria continues to escalate, claiming an estimated 70,000 lives over more than two years, there are five important truths that can be gleaned from the current state of the conflict and their implications for U.S. foreign policy.

1. The Obama doctrine is in effect: The Obama Doctrine stipulates that when the U.S. is not directly threatened but has "interests and values" at stake, as the president has said, "we have a responsibility to act."  Though some like Senators John McCain, R-Ariz., and Carl Levin, D-Mich., continue to call for the administration to pursue limited military options in Syria, the truth of the matter is that the U.S. is already heavily involved in orchestrating the flow of arms to Syria's rebels, as revealed earlier this week in The New York Times.

In their excellent reporting, C.J. Chivers and Eric Schmitt write that the contents of more than 160 military cargo flights carrying arms shipments from Turkey, Jordan and Qatar have largely been procured and distributed with heavy consultation from the CIA since November of 2012.  The uptick in U.S. involvement is likely to continue to rise alongside growing regional and international support for the removal of the Assad regime, especially if investigations reveal the use of chemical weapons by Damascus against the rebels.

[Check out our editorial cartoons on President Obama.]

2.  Iraq is not a reliable ally: The U.S. has spent roughly $1 trillion dollars and lost more than 3,500 Americans in combat during the effort to remove Saddam Hussein from power and bring some form of democracy to Iraq. Given this effort, which began ten years ago this month, you'd think the U.S. would have, at the very least, gained a strong ally in the region. Unfortunately, the Shiite dominated government in Baghdad continues to allow Iran to fly arms and military personnel to the Assad regime through Iraqi airspace, an issue the U.S. Secretary of State called "problematic," in recent meetings with Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. Repeated requests to the government of al-Maliki to inspect such flights, which Al-Jazeera reports are occurring near daily, have been met with half-hearted efforts.

3. The Sunni-Shiite proxy war is real: Geopolitical sectarian divisions between Sunni and Shiite majority countries are playing out daily vis-à-vis Syria. Regional religious rivalries are undoubtedly behind Baghdad's desire to assist the Alawite Shiite regime in Damascus, as Iraq's own minority Sunni population becomes increasingly engaged in the conflict. As the U.S.-allied Sunni-dominated countries of Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey continue to provide arms to Syria's rebels, those fighting against the regime are also receiving increasing political support from Sunni allies. 

This week saw an opposition leader take the official seat of Syria at a meeting of the Arab League in Doha (where the opposition also opened its first embassy) and League members were authorized to provide additional assistance to Syria's rebels for self-defense. Tehran said the move set a "dangerous trend" and some observers worry developments in Syria could further strain the fault lines between the so-called Sunni axis and Shia crescent.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Syria.]

4.  There is no 'cookie cutter' model for humanitarian intervention: Advocates of the so-called "Responsibility to Protect" doctrine, or R2P, held out hope in the aftermath of the intervention in Libya that a new paradigm had developed surrounding humanitarian intervention. That is, when a brutal dictator slaughters his own people, the international community, through the appropriate multilateral institutions, would authorize the use of force to prevent such atrocities.

Yet, as we discovered in interviews for Great Decisions in Foreign Policy on PBS, such conditions are not easily repeated, in particular UN Security Council approval for military intervention. As David Bosco wrote in the Multilateralist blog for Foreign Policy magazine this week, even NATO wasn't exactly clear about the impact greater military support for Syria's rebels would have on the status quo. 

5.  The conflict has been fully internationalized: While there have long been implications for countries both regionally and globally related to the conflict in Syria, the civil war has, at this point, become fully internationalized. Aside from the various players competing for regional influence along the sectarian lines mentioned above, Russia continued to side with the Syrian regime this week, condemning the move by the Arab League to recognize the opposition. 

[See a collection of political cartoons on defense spending.]

Some posit Russia fears the downfall of Assad could inspire Islamic rebellion in Russia's own volatile regions. For Jordan, the influx of refugees from Syria continues to rise at alarming rates, with nearly half a million Syrians now living in Jordan. King Abdullah's ability to absorb fleeing Syrians is a critical stop-gap measure that saw Obama pledge an additional $200 million in assistance during his trip to the region earlier this month. But UN officials today called for the international community to do more for the estimated one million Syrian refugees worldwide, many also in Turkey. 

Finally, Israel has on several occasions fired across the ceasefire line in the Golan Heights in response to random machine gun fire from Syria, as fighting moves into Syria's southern regions.  It's also on high alert regarding the potential use of chemical weapons within Syria, which it fears could fall into the hands of groups hostile to Israel.

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