Reports from the Syrian-Turkish border indicate that refugees from the massed forces of Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad, who have been protected for the past few months by the Turkish government, are under renewed threat. With the NATO incursion into Libya bogged down in a stalemate, and American troops still in Iraq and Afghanistan, options for protecting Syrian civilians lie somewhere between minimal and nonexistent. Northwestern Syria has been a quasi-autonomous zone during the recent Syrian unrest, with civilians fleeing the danger elsewhere heading near the border with Turkey, where they are under the unofficial protection of Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government.
Approximately 8,000 refugees have fled into Turkey, with thousands more massing near the Turkish border. But now Assad’s forces, perhaps drawing the lesson from his father’s murderous incursion into the city of Hama in 1982, are approaching ever closer to the refugee strongholds, and the worry is that they may assault the refugees who Assad and his cronies have been persistently describing as criminals and religious extremists. And with little to no media presence inside Syria, who would even know? Buffeted by sanctions and the disdain of the West, Syria is increasingly immune to the carrots or sticks of the rest of the world. In the post-American world, the U.S., the European Union, and other major global players still carry big sticks, but swinging it has proven to result in more whiffs than home runs.
The fallout from the Arab Spring cannot help be linked, on the American side, to the sad history of recent military incursions in the Middle East. The U.S. has been weakened by its missteps, and overstretched by its responsibilities. And the rest of the world is haunted by those missteps, and loath to repeat them. But in the aftermath of the global diplomatic and military failures of the 1990s in Rwanda, Congo, and Bosnia, there is a shared sense that the mistakes of the past should not be repeated. The nightmare in Syria appears to be just beginning, but how the world can help those in the line of fire can do little more than provide support from a distance and hope for the best remains unclear.