In the Netherlands these days, politicians discuss revoking the passports of citizens who join the opposition to Bashar al-Assad's government in Syria. In Belgium, the government threatens to revoke benefits for Belgian nationals who do the same. And in America, the New York Times reported only a month ago on the growing threat to the West as Western Muslims rush into the fight against Assad. In fact, only this past August 20, the Washington Free Beacon reported that "[s]ignificant numbers of American and European jihadists are traveling to Syria to join Islamist rebels, prompting new fears of a future wave of al Qaeda terror attacks in the United States and Europe, according to U.S. officials."
Among those known to U.S. counterterrorism forces and the FBI: Eric Harroun, 30, a former Army soldier from Phoenix, who was indicted this past June on charges of conspiring to assist a terrorist organization fighting alongside al Nusrah, described by the government as "an al Qaeda-affiliated terrorist group in Syria"; and Nicole Lynn Mansfield, 33, a Muslim convert from Flint, Mich., reportedly "slain by Syrian government forces while fighting alongside rebels" in July.
Now, in response to the alleged chemical weapon attacks by Assad's government on Syrian civilians, American and European governments have begun strategizing for likely retaliatory strikes. The problem is that anything that hurts Assad, however inadvertently, benefits those same Islamist radicals we've all been worried about. It is tantamount to defending the very same forces that French Interior Minister Manuel Valls describes as "a ticking time bomb" for the launching of terrorist attacks in Europe and the United States.
Equally incredible is the fact that, in taking military action in Syria, America would effectively be standing on the same side as al-Qaeda affiliate groups who also support them. As counterterrorism consultants Flashpoint Partners recently reported, "the lion's share of foreign fighters who are dying in Syria are fighting with the most hardline organization involved in the uprising: Jabhat al-Nusra. The leader of Jabhat al-Nusra, Abu Mohammed al-Joulani, has recently publicly sworn allegiance to al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri and the group has been blacklisted as a branch of Al Qaeda in Iraq by the United States Government."
Even worse, just days ago, Al Nusra announced its own plans to "dispatch up to 1,000 rockets against Alawite villages in Syria," according to the Free Beacon. Would involving ourselves in Syria mean calling them our allies? Or would America find itself taking on a third position in what is already an impossible and unresolvable conflict? And if so, what position could that possibly be?
True, it is a proud and longstanding facet of the American psyche to intervene in the face of human suffering, to protect the citizens of the world from the abuses of their leaders. But the question Washington needs to consider as well is not just whether we can afford another war with a still-struggling economy and a military exhausted by two others. Nor is it simply whether we should be involving ourselves in a war against a country that has brought no direct threat to the U.S. The bigger question is whether, in Syria, we are ultimately aiding those who seek our destruction. Speaking to reporters for The Hill recently, former Congressman Dennis Kucinich put it in the clearest possible terms: "So what," he asked rhetorically, "we're about to become Al-Qaeda's air force now?"
U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., has also expressed reservations, based in large part on his own visit to Syria in February. "There were a number of people who came out of Damascus to meet with me," he told me, "and conditions have only gotten worse since then. You have brutal people involved – and what if they got our weapons? How would we control it all?"
The window of opportunity for safe involvement in Syria, he feels, closed about a year ago. "Maybe two years ago we knew who the Free Syrian Army was," he noted, "but now we don't. Maybe the CIA does, but I certainly don't." That uncertainty, for Wolf, is just a part of what makes the stakes so high. "It takes just two hours to drive from Jerusalem to Damascus," he said. "Now Jordan is in trouble. There are bombings in Lebanon. Egypt is in crisis. Syria is falling apart. What a war we'd be facing."
Abigail R. Esman, the author, most recently, of Radical State: How Jihad Is Winning Over Democracy in the West (Praeger, 2010), is a freelance writer based in New York and the Netherlands.