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Defusing Syria’s ticking time bomb

by Itamar Rabinovich

It is remarkable that a stern warning about the scale of the threat posed to the United States by Syria’s civil war has gone practically unnoticed. Is U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration stumbling toward the abyss?

Earlier this month, the Wall Street Journal reported that, according to the CIA’s deputy director, Michael Morell, “Syria’s volatile mix of al-Qaida extremism and civil war now poses the greatest threat to U.S. national security” — indeed, “probably the most important issue in the world today.”

By contrast, Morell described the Iranian regime’s “merging of … nuclear ambitions with its desire to be a hegemonic power in the Middle East” as a mere “cause for concern.” Morell, who is preparing to step down from the CIA soon, has little reason to dissemble.

Just two months ago, in mid-June, when the Syrian crisis was the focus of international attention and the subject of heated policy debate, such a statement by a senior administration official would have drawn strong reactions from several quarters. But Syria has since moved from the center of attention, displaced by the coup and ongoing crisis in Egypt, the threat of an al-Qaida terror offensive in Yemen and elsewhere, and the renewal of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

The apparent (and deceptive) lull in the fighting in Syria has contributed to this shift. After the government’s military achievements in Quseir and Homs, there has been some tactical regrouping by the opposition. Both sides are trading minor blows as they prepare for a major round of fighting in Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, now held by the opposition. Overall, and despite the regime’s recent victories, the fighting remains at a stalemate.

So this is a convenient time for the international community to look away from a crisis that seems to have no good solutions. But this does not diminish the gravity of what is happening in Syria, or lessen the seriousness of Morell’s warning.

As Morell put it, the most acute danger is that a regime with a large stockpile of weapons of mass destruction will be supplanted by a regime affiliated with, or dominated by, al-Qaida. Pointing to the inflow of jihadis, Morell said that Syria’s “current track is toward the collapse of its central government,” after which it would replace Pakistan as al-Qaida’s preferred haven.

Morrell thus placed himself squarely within one of the two principal schools of thought in the policy debate on Syria (a debate that is articulated almost exclusively in geopolitical terms and ignores humanitarian issues).

One school regards Syria primarily as a theater of battle against al-Qaida and other extremists. Its adherents, preoccupied with the prospect of a jihadi takeover in Syria, argue (sometimes implicitly and sometimes explicitly) that the U.S. and its allies must not support or intervene on the side of the rebels and, in fact, should view Bashar Assad’s regime as the lesser evil.

Those who fear a jihadi takeover cite recent events in Sinai. Just a few days ago, Israel closed its airport in Eilat after receiving a warning that jihadis in Sinai planned to attack it with rockets. This, it is argued, is only a dress rehearsal for what can be expected in a post-Assad Syria.

The other school of thought does not take this scenario lightly. Nonetheless, it argues that a victory in Syria by a coalition of Russia, Iran, Hezbollah, and Assad’s regime would pose an even greater danger. Moreover, in the event of the Assad regime’s fall, there would be plenty of ways to deal with the jihadi groups in Syria.

But the most appropriate response to Morell’s statement is that the U.S. does not necessarily have to choose between two sharply defined options. Yes, Syria’s secular opposition is weak and divided, while the jihadis are more dynamic; but jihadi supremacy in the event of an opposition victory is not inevitable. The U.S. and its allies should conduct a robust policy, make a more significant investment in the secular opposition, and articulate clear goals.

In June, Obama announced that Assad’s regime had used chemical weapons against its own population and had thus crossed his administration’s “red line.” But no coherent action or policy followed this powerful statement. For Obama, Syria’s fate simply does not seem urgent; but when the decisive battle for Aleppo begins, it may be too late. Morell’s warnings may yet be vindicated — by default, if not by design.

Itamar Rabinovich, a former ambassador of Israel to the United States (1993-1996), currently is based at Tel Aviv University, New York University, and the Brookings Institution. © 2013 Project Syndicate