So long as the Syrian civil war grinds on and the Islamic State continues expanding its footprint, desperate refugees will keep flowing from places like Syria. Unfortunately, addressing the root causes of either the Syrian conflict or the rise of ISIS is beyond the scope of what the United States and its allies can reasonably do. Calls on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to negotiate with rebel fighters have proven wholly ineffective to date, while greater military involvement in Syria is neither wise nor justified on U.S. national-security grounds.
But as horrifying as it has been, the refugee crisis offers the outlines of a new strategy—one both morally superior to the current do-little approach and practically superior to additional military intervention. In short, the United States and its European allies should plan to take in all refugees fleeing violence in Syria, with the help of other willing nations around the world.
Proposals by American hawks such as Senators Lindsey Graham and John McCain to use U.S. ground troops to confront ISIS or remove Assad from power are clearly misguided. After all, the United States simply does not have enough of a national-security interest in either goal. Beyond this, Russia’s new military campaign in Syria now makes U.S. intervention far more complicated and hazardous—by adding heightened U.S.-Russian hostilities to the list of potential consequences. And finally, escalating the U.S. military campaign is unlikely to make things better. Though it would probably, in the short run, alter the balance of which groups suffer the most casualties, the central lesson from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq is that even an extended U.S. military presence cannot promise an end to conflict. Though U.S. military action can topple governments, destroy buildings, and kill people, it cannot defeat ideas or prevent the spread of extremism and the mobilization of extremist groups. Indeed, the Islamic State might not exist today had it not been for the invasion of Iraq and the radical weakening of the Iraqi state that followed. Fourteen years after the invasion of Afghanistan and 12 years after the invasion of Iraq, neither nation is a safe place to live—both are themselves producing refugees in large numbers.