Updated: May 6, 2013 6:21AM
Pressure has been growing for President Barack Obama to intervene with military strikes to aid the rebels in Syria. But the president prudently has avoided a high-risk stake in that civil war out of a reasonable fear he would be throwing gasoline on the wildfire of violent Islamist extremism that is sweeping across the Middle East and North Africa.
In one of the new bipartisan displays on Capitol Hill in recent weeks, Democrat Carl Levin and Republican John McCain of the Senate Armed Services Committee wrote Obama urging “limited military options” such as air strikes to erode the air superiority of dictator Bashir al-Assad and establish safe zones for the rebels and thousands of refugees created by the conflict. Arming the rebels is advanced by others urging stronger U.S. action.
From the start, the problem has been identifying which rebels to help. The ranks of the anti-Assad forces swelled with jihadists favorable if not linked to our enemy al-Qaida. Often they proved to be the most effective fighters, due in part to their religious, revolutionary zeal and in part to their better weapons thanks to arms provided by Sunni-dominated fundamentalist states like Saudi Arabia. Sunni-led nations want to check the influence of other branches of Islam, notably Iran’s Shiites and the Alawite sect of the Assad family — fanning the explosive sectarian aspect of the conflict.
Worry about arms going to radicals has stayed Obama’s hand despite the suffering of the Syrian people with more than 70,000 dead. Even some European powers like France that recently warmed to the idea of funneling weapons to the rebels more recently have grown wary out of the same fears. That concern is reinforced by worry that foreign fighters among the rebels — numbering perhaps up to 5,500 and many from European Union nations — would return to the West with terrorist aims.
Unfortunately evidence abounds of the hazards in the chaos that follows the unseating of a long-seated dictator. U.S. power helped topple Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi. He was replaced by a government described as moderate but one powerless to prevent or stop a terrorist attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi that killed our ambassador and three other Americans. Arms from Gadhafi’s stockpile have flowed throughout the region. They and the radicals unleashed by the Libyan revolt spread into Mali, so threatening that country and beyond that France intervened militarily.
Tunisia, the wellspring of the ill-named “Arab Spring,” also is run these days by a government that is moderate by Mideast standards. Yet it is so weak, the Wall Street Journal reports, that some of the world’s worst jihadist leaders operate practically in the open there.
The Islamist Muslim Brotherhood that once promised a low political profile now runs a post-Mubarak Egypt on the verge of economic calamity and plagued by continuing unrest and protest from an unhappy people. Everyone worries that pro-West Jordan will be next. Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf states suppress protests from restive populations. Iran seeks nuclear weapons. Further east, nuclear-armed Pakistan wrestles with radicals as the Taliban takes control of many neighborhoods in Karachi, population 20 million.
What would U.S. intervention bring if it ended the stalemate in Syria and led to a rebel victory? Gratitude? Or would the jihadists crow that Obama jumped in only when their victory was undeniable? Obama has plenty of reason to be cautious as he watches a spreading Islamist wildfire sure to bring more death and misery to the region and to the world.