Forget the Great Game: Let's Protect Civilians in Syria

By Benjamin Wittes
Friday, October 9, 2015, 10:05 AM

The other day, a young man named Mouhanad Abdulhamid Al Rifay took the oath of US citizenship. It was an emotional moment for his family of Syrian asylees, who came to this country a few years before the current conflict broke out when their pro-democracy political activity resulted in threats from the Assad regime that required them to bolt.

It was also an emotional moment for my family. We have known Mouhanad, his sister Oula, and his mother Khawla, since they came out of Syria when Mouhanad was a young teenager. We have known his stepfather, Ammar Abdulhammid, longer than that—since he was a visiting fellow at Brookings years ago. Indeed, when Mouhanad's family had to suddenly leave Syria, they all stayed at our house for a spell until they got a place of their own.

I think of this family every time I hear someone say something stupid or ignorant about the Syrian refugee crisis (which is often) and every time I hear someone talk about Syria in the language of the Great Game (which is even more often). I am not a sentimentalist in foreign policy. But I have come to have an intense revulsion at the chess board manner in which we tend to talk about Syria (Assad to queen knight six, Russia bombs at queen bishop four, ISIS to king rook five, etc.).

This sort of talk would be defensible, perhaps, were there not millions of civilians displaced or in the way. If Syria were an open landscape filled with nothing but the forces of Assad, ISIS, Russia, Iran, the Al Nusra Front, and the remnants of the Free Syrian Army, I would be content to arm the least anti-Western forces and let the Ba'athists and jihadists fight to the death. If there were not huge refugee camps, comprising a measurable percentage of the entire population of the country, I would be content to arm a train plucky Syrian anti-ISIS fighters and let Russia embroil itself in a quagmire. If there were not refugees by the tens of thousands making dangerous journeys in small craft over water and through European countries whose police beat them and whose politicians fret about the threat they pose to Christian Europe, I might enjoy the spectacle of the ISIS v. Bashar cage fight.

The trouble is that while we flail in a Great Game we're not very good at, the magnitude of the human suffering is impossible to quantify. We're focused on the political outcome of a conflict in which we lack the will to intervene aggressively enough meaningfully to impact that outcome. And there are a lot of innocent people in the way.

In my view, we should stop pretending. Fine, keep hitting ISIS with strikes designed to contain it. Fine, keep building up whatever force we can. Fine, keep a finger in the political side of things so that the forces of non-murderous government have at least some seat at the table. But we shouldn't confuse this with a policy. Our policy should be oriented elsewhere.

Let me humbly submit that the place for US policy—and military exertion—should lie in civilian protection.

On the ground, we should be defining safe areas where neither ISIS nor Assad can kill people and where Russian planes won't bomb them.

We should be helping refugees get to the countries that want to take them. Why are people dying in small boats and trekking over land to Germany? We could airlift large numbers of people quickly and safely to a country that has—with a remarkable generosity of spirit we have not ourseves shown—offered to shield people in large numbers.

And no, we should not just be Germany's taxi service: we should be taking more Syrian refugees—many, many more of them—ourselves. These are people fleeing Assad. These are people fleeing ISIS. One is entitled to ask what exactly America is for if we do not open our doors to them. They are people like Mouhanad, who will love this country with the special fervor of people who have experienced real tyranny.

Will there be bad apples among them? Of course—just as every significant migration brings with it people who, individually, should have been left behind. But we should not be afraid. America would benefit hugely from an influx of Syrians.

The other day, I posted on Mouhanad's Facebook page: "Whenever I hear people fretting about what to do about the Syrian refugee crisis, I wish I could introduce them to this very special and courageous family and more people could hear their story. Most complex problems don't have simple answers. The refugee crisis in Syria does: Do the right thing. Welcome them. It's really that simple. They won't disappoint."

I want to broaden this point. If the fight between ISIS and Al Nusra and Assad and Iran and Putin did not involve a lot of people like Mouhanad, I would wish only one thing for it: The highest possible casualty count on all sides. The more of each other they kill, after all, the fewer of them there will be to menace regional populations.

But there are millions of people in the way. And in this fight, I think we should be on exactly one party's side: their's. We should do everything in our power to help people who need help.

Who this will aid in the Great Game calculations? I have no idea. And honestly, I'm not sure I care all that much.