Syria still burns while U.S. influence dwindles

Months after the world watched President Obama announce airstrikes against Syria for its use of chemical weapons against its own people, the country still burns, as civil war continues to ravage the Middle Eastern nation. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s agreement (brokered by the Russian government) to give up his chemical weapons stockpile has staved off any U.S. attacks, but has done little to end the two-year civil war, which has claimed more than 100,000 lives and displaced more than a million Syrians.

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The violence has spread beyond Syria's borders and threatens to destabilize the entire region. Hezbollah fighters from neighboring countries and jihadists groups, including al-Qaeda, have joined the fray even as the international community, led by Russia, one of al-Assad's strongest allies, has worked feverishly to find a solution to end the bloodshed. The impact of the foreign fighters cannot be overstated. Recent attacks on a gas pipeline feeding into a power station have resulted in power outages across the country, and in the capital of Damascus.

Since the administration’s clumsy handling of the Syrian conflict, Washington has struggled mightily with internal domestic politics leaving the rest of the world to find solutions to ending the civil war in Syria. This situation leaves the region in a stature of buckling under the weight of instability caused by incessant warring. Perhaps this is the new normal; a world where the United States “leads from behind.”  Or, maybe it’s just fatigue from the more than decade-long engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan that have left even the most battle-hungry feeling stuffed. Whatever the case, a region that has been experiencing major upheaval and change now seems largely void of American influence. To make matters worse, the U.S. image has taken a major hit throughout the Middle East. America’s median approval rating there is only 21 percent—lower than China at 45 percent.

The U.S. and President Obama still have work to do to stabilize the region. And, it should happen sooner than later. If not, Syria will continue to burn and in the process China and Russia will supplant the United States as the countries of predominant influence.

Ham is co-chair of the DC-based Fragile State Strategy Group and co-author of S.O.S.: A U.S. Strategy of Statebuilding.