Toward the very end of my study abroad in Lebanon last semester, a Sunni extremist linked to al-Qaeda blew himself up outside the Iranian Embassy in Beirut, killing 25 people and wounding more than 150 civilians and diplomats. The blast could be felt throughout the entire city, but it also sent shockwaves throughout a region that is becoming engulfed in instability from the sectarian nature of the civil war in Syria. The dangers of this transnational violence are being ignored on the world stage as the international community continues to fail the people of Syria and the greater Middle East at large.
The conflict in Syria today bears no resemblance to the democratic demands of the Arab Spring protests that swept the Middle East almost three years ago. The current situation has also deteriorated from the civil war that followed between moderate Sunni opposition forces and the Shiite-supported government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Rather, the struggle has now entered a third stage in which both government and rebel forces are fighting a growing Sunni extremist presence composed predominantly of foreign fighters who have traveled from countries as far away as France and Indonesia.
These foreign fighters are exacerbating an already delicate political climate between Sunnis and Shiites, and are spreading violence throughout the region at a critical transition point in the history of the Middle East. A post-failed Arab Spring environment has yielded sectarian chaos for a region that is facing the threatening rise of Iran and a withdrawal of American interests in the region. But this is a time the U.S. and the world should be actively engaging the Middle East with responsible political action instead of abandoning the region to fend for itself.
While the world has made some attempts to steady the situation in Syria, every initiative has been insufficient or poorly planned in solving one of the worst humanitarian crises of the 21st century. These blunders include President Barack Obama’s botched strategy of bluffing military action, a recently failed peace conference, and the far-behind-schedule removal of Assad’s chemical weapons.
The world cannot just sit idly by and watch the war in Syria implode the region. Instead, American officials need to remove Assad from power by increasing vocal support and political training to moderate opposition leaders, and restart negotiations with Russian officials to end their military aid to the Syrian government. Additionally, the U.S. government should resume supplying rebels with non-lethal aid, and apply pressure on Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to withdraw Iranian military advisers and Shiite militias from Syria in exchange for further relief from international sanctions.
All these actions would contribute to containing the combat in Syria and would stabilize its neighboring countries, which are reeling from the war spilling over their borders. This, in turn, would create more hospitable conditions for further peace negotiations. And, most importantly, would remove a rallying point that flames the debasing and dangerous Sunni-Shiite conflict.