05/06/2013 12:37 EDT | Updated 07/06/2013 05:12 EDT

Saving Syria Is America's Thankless Task

As the death toll continues to climb in Syria's civil war (the UN pegged the total at over 70,000 back in February), and as the ruling regime in Damascus allegedly unleashes chemical weapons on its own people, there is a growing consensus that something must be done to end the fighting and unseat the man responsible for so much bloodshed -- Bashar Assad. As for who should act, there is only one option. The United States must intercede because no one else will, but the question is whether it should do so.

There are more than enough reasons for Americans to feel justified in sitting this Arab conflict out, as they have done so far (with the exception of providing opposition forces with some humanitarian aid and items of minor military import). After a disastrous war in Iraq and grueling camping in Afghanistan that left thousands of U.S. soldiers dead, countless more maimed and psychologically damaged, cost over a trillion dollars and resulted in little or no perceptible decline in the rise of radical Islam and along with it anti-American sentiments that translate into terrorism, the Americans are understandably wary of getting involved in another Arab fight.

The Syrian civil war presents a further complication in that revolutionary forces have been infiltrated by Islamists with ties to al-Qaida; there is reason to believe if the opposition does indeed defeat Assad's troops it will impose the tenets of radical Islam, especially hatred of America, on Syrians. U.S. military (and monetary) aid won't change that, as it hasn't in other Arab countries, like Egypt.

In short, there is no discernible tactical benefit to the U.S. getting involved in Syria. In fact, there is every reason to stay away -- to let two enemies continue their war against each other to the bitter end, then re-evaluate how to engage (or not) whomever emerges.

(On the other hand, Israel, which fired rocket volleys into Syria on two occasions over the weekend, has what to fight for: with the eventual fall of Assad, Hezbollah, with help from Iran, will try -- evidently, it's already trying -- to get its hands on the substantial cache of weapons stored across Syria. Advanced rockets of the type targeted by the Israeli airstrikes could wreak havoc on the Jewish state -- and by moving two of its Iron Dome batteries to the Syrian border, the Israeli government has effectively admitted it may not be able to completely stop Hezbollah from stocking up. Add to that sending a healthy reminder to Iran that Syria is nothing but a side-show in the grand scheme of things.)

The only good reason for the Americans to get involved is humanitarian: the massacres of entire families and villages and indiscriminate shelling and strafing of civilian areas by the Assad regime insult America's sense of human decency and credo of defending the weak and defenseless.

The UN, slow to react to catastrophe at the best of times, is further neutered on the Syria file due to Russia and China, who continue to defend Assad (though less vigorously of late). As for the Arab League, no one expects much help there -- it seems as though Arab countries are perfectly satisfied to sit and watch as their cousins kill each other. How the Arab League rationalizes this is beyond me.

So it falls to the U.S. to save the day, as it has so many times before, a thankless task for the benefit of an unapologetic enemy. The Americans will arm the Syrian rebels who in turn will topple Assad -- and whether some form of democracy will emerge from this disaster is anyone's guess. But it's a safe bet the next leaders of Syria will maintain the current edition's hatred of the United States, will harbor terrorist organizations, including perhaps al-Qaida, and by doing so endanger Americans at home and abroad. They will also prevent ordinary Syrians from experiencing a more prosperous and more equal way of life, and perhaps that is the greatest tragedy.

But such is the burden of the benevolent superpower in a world where no one else can, or possesses the will to, fight injustice on a global scale. Great power comes with great responsibility, they say, and sometimes that means defending even your enemies because no one else will. Lesser nations, as we are seeing now and have seen before, don't seem to understand why it must be this way.

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