U.S. President Barack Obama's insistence on employing air power to punish Syria even if such a war breaches international law and unleashes major unintended consequences is just the latest chapter in a more than two-year U.S. policy whose calculations have gone wrong in backing jihad against Syrian President Bashar Assad's dictatorial rule. Military strikes could compound Obama's policy missteps, including inadvertently strengthening the hands of gun-toting Islamists.

Before an internal insurrection in 2011 turned Syria into a proxy battleground for regional and global powers, the country probably was the most liberal, secular Muslim state in the arc of Islam. Today, it is a broken state — its social fabric in tatters, its physical infrastructure largely wrecked, and its cities pummeled daily by urban warfare, with much of the northern region under the sway of hardline Islamist groups, especially the Al Nusra Front.

As also happened in Afghanistan from the 1980s and more recently in Libya, the spirit of jihad the United States helped instill in Syria to overthrow Assad — along with the supply of petrodollar-funded Western arms through Turkey and Jordan — has spawned hardcore Islamist militants wedded to the al-Qaida ideology. Al Nusra now overshadows the Free Syrian Army, established with help from the U.S. and the region's old colonial powers, Britain and France.