With renewed calls for a peace plan and the establishment of a transitional government in Syria, the United States is once more declaring its commitment to "leading from behind" in the Syrian crisis--which is to say, not leading at all. Meanwhile the situation on the ground continues to deteriorate at an alarming rate. In addition to the massive humanitarian crisis within Syria, neighboring Jordan and Lebanon are reaching a breaking point in their capacity to support Syrian refugees. In Lebanon alone, the ratio of refugees to Lebanese residents has reached an astonishing one to five.
Meanwhile, sectarian tension within Syria is on the rise, and with the Lebanese militia Hezbollah's active participation in the crisis in support of the Bashar al-Assad regime, sectarian strife is beginning to simmer in Lebanon as well. Further east, Israel is beginning to see clashes edging closer to its borders, as is the case with the Turkish border in the northwest.
Reports from Syria are saying that the Assad regime has not even used its full capacity yet against its own people. Although the armed Syrian opposition has made significant gains, it remains weaker than the regime militarily. The Obama Administration's choice to "lead from behind," supplying the opposition with only low-level, non-lethal equipment, has achieved nothing except prolonging the bloodshed. More than two years into the uprising, the balance of power does not look like it's tipping in favor of the opposition. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad appears convinced that the international community is not serious about calling on him to step down. And ongoing support from Iran and Russia buttresses his inclination to simply ride out the challenge with ruthless repression.
Sadly, Assad's posture is not irrational. Why would Assad take international rhetoric against him seriously when it has been coupled neither with real diplomatic pressure nor with a serious military threat? What we have seen over the past two-plus years instead is failed attempts at dialogue, empty-handed international envoys, and a reluctant international community hiding behind excuses such as the need for a united Syrian opposition or the fear of a wider regional war in the wake of the Assad regime's fall.
Unfortunately, inaction on the part of the international community, with the United States at the forefront, has transformed Assad's rhetoric about civil war in Syria and the empowerment of Islamist extremists into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Western rhetoric about the Syrian crisis, meanwhile, has shifted 180 degrees in one year. From public denial of the entry of Islamist extremists into the equation a year ago, the dominant discourse now is about a potential Islamist extremist takeover of Syria if Assad falls.
A year ago, denial was used to justify non-intervention. Today, the exact opposite narrative is being used for the same purpose. However, the reality on the ground in Syria is very different. While the Syrian opposition in exile has indeed proven to be rife with internal struggles and divisions, in Syria itself, serious efforts are being undertaken by secular opposition figures--such as members of the Local Coordination Committees--to keep the momentum of the revolution going through non-violent action. It is those people--largely ignored by both the international media as well as the policy community--who have the trust of the Syrian people. Islamist extremists groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra, on the other hand, may make a lot of noise in the international arena, but their presence and impact on the ground in Syria is actually not as significant. Put together, those two factors refute the claim that if the Assad regime falls, Syria would be overrun by Islamist extremists or that there would be no viable alternative to the Assad regime.