Syria's Collapse

And How Washington Can Stop It

A Free Syrian Army fighter takes cover during clashes with the Syrian Army in central Aleppo, 2012. Goran Tomasevic / Courtesy Reuters

Syria is melting down. The ruling regime’s attempt to shoot its way out of the largest uprising it has ever faced has killed over 80,000 people and displaced roughly half of Syria’s population of 22 million. If the current monthly death tolls of around 6,000 keep up, Syria will by August hit a grim milestone: 100,000 killed, a number that it took almost twice as long to reach in Bosnia in the early 1990s. This a full two years after U.S. President Barack Obama pronounced that President Bashar al-Assad needed to “step aside.”

Comparisons to the Balkans do not suffice to describe the crisis in Syria, however. The real danger is that the country could soon end up looking more like Somalia, where a bloody two-decade-long civil war has torn apart the state and created a sanctuary for criminals and terrorists. Syria has already effectively fractured into three barely contiguous areas. In each, U.S.-designated terrorist organizations are now ascendant. The regime still holds sway in western Syria, the part of the country dominated by the Alawite minority, to which the Assad family belongs; and fighters from Hezbollah, a Shiite Islamist group backed by Iran, regularly cross the increasingly meaningless Lebanese border to join Assad’s forces there. Meanwhile, a heavily Sunni Arab north-central region has come under the control of a diverse assortment of armed opposition groups. These include Jabhat al-Nusra (also known as the al-Nusra Front), an al Qaeda affiliate, which recently hoisted its black flag over Syria’s largest dam on the Euphrates. In the Kurdish north, a local offshoot of the militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which has fought a long guerrilla war against the Turkish government, operates freely.

Look closer, and the picture gets worse. The conflict, whose daily death toll is now above those at the height of the Iraq war, in 2007, is rapidly spilling over into neighboring countries. The Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan has become that country’s fourth-largest city (population: 180,000), stretching

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