Syria remains the world’s most urgent human and strategic crisis

There’s a dangerous human tendency to gradually pay less attention to crises that unfold over long periods of time. That, of course, is possible only for those whose daily lives are not directly affected. For everyone else, it creates an unconscious illusion that the situation can be ignored without consequences.

More than three years have passed since the war in Syria began. Since then, the human suffering has been incalculable. Other aspects of the conflict, however, can be measured, and the statistics are not only grim, they are ominous.

The U.N.’s refugee agency just announced that the number of Syrian refugees in Lebanon has topped 1 million people, half of them children. U.N. officials called it a “devastating milestone.” Altogether, the war has uprooted an incredible 9 million Syrians from their homes. About 2.5 million of them live the dismal existence of refugees in neighboring countries.

The total number of dead is calculated by exiled groups at more than 150,000.

Every single individual in all these numbers represents a focus of suffering that is beyond our comprehension.

And yet, the war in Syria is about more than the pain of the Syrian people. Syria has become the fulcrum of instability in the Middle East. The continuing fighting, the endless violence, is shooting sparks across all the country’s borders. It is creating deep rifts throughout the region and planting political landmines in an area of heavy traffic.

It’s tempting to dismiss the fighting as just another humanitarian catastrophe, and wash the world’s hands of it by saying bad guys are killing bad guys and, sadly, civilians are suffering. But it is not that simple.

Indeed, extremists of all stripes are dying in Syria. But pernicious powers are growing strong, moderate forces are losing ground, the region is becoming more fragmented, and thousands of individuals from multiple countries — including Westerners — are becoming radicalized and trained.

The Syrian president, Iran’s very close friend, Bashar Assad, has grown stronger in the last year, according the U.S. intelligence chief James Clapper. Iran’s allied militia from Lebanon, Hezbollah, is helping cement his position in Damascus and, as a result, fortifying the Iranian regime.

In Lebanon, the Syrian war is destabilizing the country more each day. The country that endured a 15-year civil war that left 200,000 dead is teetering. The Sunni population is seething at Shiia Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria. That has prompted Lebanese Sunnis to mobilize, as well.

Bursts of deadly fighting have erupted inside Lebanon. Top politicians have been assassinated. Dozens have died in shoot-outs. More than a dozen car bombs have exploded in the last year.

Violence has similarly escalated in Iraq, partly as a result of events in Syria. Turkey, also, is all but at war with Syria. A few days ago, Turkey shot down a Syrian warplane. And Israel, too, has seen live fire across the border.

Political divisions over Syria have caused a crisis in relations between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, each of which is arming rival factions of the anti-government forces.

When President Barack Obama traveled to Riyadh a few days ago, he agreed to consider providing Syrian rebels with “MANPADS,” shoulder-fired anti-aircraft weapons.

While the Manpads are a terrible idea — they could be used against civilian aircraft — the United States and its allies should step up their assistance to the moderate opposition before it disappears.

The reason for not doing so in the early stages of the civil war has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Washington worried that the rebel forces would become radicalized. But by refusing to provide meaningful help, the moderate forces lost out to other rebels, who received massive support from Islamist groups and their supporters, leaving the secular opposition demoralized, unable to hold its ground and incapable of attracting young Syrians eager to join the fight against Assad.

There is no way of knowing how this war would have unfolded if the West had provided support to the moderate opposition early on, but there is no question that the current state of affairs is a gruesome disaster with the potential to become even worse.

The Syrian crisis, now in its fourth year, is one we must not allow to drift from out attention. Whether we care more about the humanitarian imperative or about strategic considerations, Syria must remain at the top of the global agenda.

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