Syria’s biggest threat not being talked about

Syria is in crisis. The lives of millions of innocent civilians, the stability of its neighbors and American national security are all at stake — but it has nothing to do with President Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons. Assad’s slaughter of over 1,400 civilians, 426 of which were children, on Aug. 21 has commanded American and international attention over this past week. However, this event has even further sidelined the most significant challenge of this sectarian civil war — the displacement of over six million Syrians, two million of whom are now refugees in other nations.

The Syrian refugee crisis threatens to destabilize the entire Levant. Lebanon, a nation whose tenuous system of government assigns parliamentary seats based on the populations of its religious groups, has seen the greatest influx of refugees. The arrival of 716,000 mostly Sunni Syrians threatens to fundamentally undermine the balance of the Lebanese state. All of Syria’s neighbors are at serious risk of similar instability, and it is hard to imagine a more volatile time. Jordan is already a delicate amalgamation of refugees, Iraq is torn apart by sectarian violence and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s support of the Syrian rebels is increasingly unpopular domestically. Syrian refugees, whose numbers are growing rapidly, will exacerbate these dynamics and further destabilize each of these nations. Such volatility undermines U.S. national security, as it increases the likelihood of the Syrian civil war evolving into a regional sectarian conflict — which would undermine Israeli security, diminish American clout in the region and likely be accompanied by human rights abuses.

There is an even more direct threat to the United States apropos Syrian refugees — Islamic fundamentalism. Hundreds of thousands of young predominantly Sunni men have been displaced by a minority Alawite president clinging to power through ferocious military force. UN refugee camps are characterized by economic hardship and few prospects for employment. In nations like Turkey, refugees and rebels are operating in close proximity, and radical Islamist groups like the al-Nusra Front, an al-Qaeda affiliate, increasingly dominate the Syrian rebel forces. Refugees are entering societies that are increasingly hostile to their presence. All these conditions make Syrian refugees ripe for radicalization — a process that has been seen in the past with Palestinian and Afghani refugees. If American so-called nation building in Iraq and Afghanistan dispelled radicalization, the deconstruction and collapse of Syria as a viable state will do the exact opposite.

The long-term strategic interest of the United States in Syria lies not in Assad’s use of chemical weapons, but in the refugee issue. To ameliorate the crisis, America must first work closely with Syria’s neighboring nations on short- term economic and political integration of the refugee population. The United States must substantially increase its financial commitment to the UN Refugee Agency, the only organization with the experience to oversee the crisis. Lastly, the U.S. must keep its attention focused on the refugee crisis. Indeed, an issue that receives limited press coverage and that is rarely talked about by American politicians may be the most pivotal in determining America’s fate in the Middle East over the next decade.

A version of this article appeared in the Wednesday, Sept. 11 print edition. Raj Mathur is a contributing writer. Email him at [email protected]