IT MIGHT seem as though the horrors of Syria, where more than 60,000 people have died violently in the last 22 months, could not grow worse. Yet steadily, week by week, they do. One measure is the refugee flows: In the past month more than 30,000 people have fled to neighboring Jordan alone, threatening to overwhelm an already unstable monarchy. More than 200,000 Syrians are now in Lebanon, 150,000 in Turkey and 75,000 in Iraq, according to the United Nations. A group of U.S. senators who recently visited a camp heard horrific stories of the ongoing crimes by the regime of Bashar al-Assad, as well as bitter complaints that Western countries — in particular, the United States — are doing little or nothing to help.
The logic at work here — the longer the Assad regime holds on, the worse the consequences — was acknowledged by senior Obama administration officials nearly a year ago. The incoming secretary of state, John F. Kerry, repeated it at his confirmation hearing last week: “Every day that goes by, it gets worse.” From that follows a logical conclusion, stated Monday by French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius: “If we don’t give the means to the Syrian people to go achieve their freedom, there is a risk . . . that massacres and antagonisms amplify, and that extremism and terrorism prevail.”
The Obama administration nevertheless appears stuck on Syria, unable to decide even on simple measures to help the opposition. Not only does it refuse to provide weapons to moderate rebel fighting units — which complain of shortages even as materiel pours in to jihadist groups — but it claims it is legally barred from giving even non-lethal aid directly to the Syrian National Coalition. U.S. humanitarian aid goes to private groups such as the Red Crescent or, worse, the United Nations, which passes much of it along to the regime.
In speaking about Syria in recent days, Mr. Kerry and President Obama described not a strategy for stopping a bloodbath that threatens vital U.S. interests but rather a series of excuses for inaction. In an interview with the New Republic published over the weekend, Mr. Obama wondered how to “weigh” the thousands dying in Syria against the thousands being killed in the Congo, as if all wars are of equal importance to the United States or the inability to solve every problem means America should not help even where it can.
Not for the first time, Mr. Obama also asked whether U.S. intervention could “trigger even worse violence or the use of chemical weapons.” The president asked the same question a year ago, and the answer is now known: In the absence of U.S. action, the violence grew far worse and the Assad regime moved dangerously close to using chemical arms.
The United States could do much to shape the course of events in Syria without using American troops. It could begin providing aid directly to Syrian refugee organizations and civilian councils inside the country, as France has done for months. It could provide arms to moderate rebel factions, so that they can compete with the jihadists and so that they will look to the United States when the war is over. Continued passivity will ensure that the crisis in Syria continues to worsen — along with the consequences for the United States.