Late last month an American from Florida blew himself up in a suicide attack in Syria.
Here's the good news: Moner Mohammad Abusalha's truck bomb was aimed at Syrian government forces, not at some building in New York City. The bad news: As many as 70 Americans and 3,000 Europeans are among more than 7,000 foreigners from 50 countries fighting with Syrian rebel groups linked to al-Qaida. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper says these groups are already training people "to go back to their (home) countries."
The worse news: Jihadis have taken over a vast swath of territory stretching from eastern Syria deep into Iraq, where they control the city of Fallujah and are exploding dozens of suicide bombs monthly. Their so-called Islamic Emirate in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) is poised to export more extremists to the West and Middle East than Afghanistan and Pakistan did in past decades.
Let me be clear: The best response would not require sending U.S. planes or troops. It would require helping Syrians (and Iraqis) fight back against the jihadis -- as some moderate Syrian rebels are already doing. But these groups are also fighting the Syrian regime and they don't have sufficient resources for their dual struggle.
Inexplicably, the White House still can't decide whether to give these rebels the help they need.This lack of on-the-ground pressure made it easy for Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and his Russian and Iranian backers to reject any political compromise at failed Geneva negotiations. To underscore the point, Assad arranged his "re-election" last week.
The White House policy paralysis has stymied top diplomats such as Robert Ford, former U.S. ambassador to Syria, who recently quit in frustration.
I asked him in an interview whether he thought it was too late to push back ISIL, which has declared an Islamic emirate in eastern Syria and western Iraq, or Jabhat al-Nusra, the group to which the American truck bomber belonged. "It's much harder now, but not too late," he replied.
In 2012 and 2013, he says, Syrian moderates were reluctant to criticize ISIL because they were fighting the same enemy, Assad. But now, he says, "There is active combat between them. ISIL has been thrown out of Aleppo." In places where the moderates have had access to adequate supplies, he says, they have prevailed.
But what of the argument that the United States needs dictator Assad in power to counter the jihadis? "Syria is a failed state," Ford shoots back. "There is an absence of a serious governmental authority able to crack down on terrorist groups in the east or the south."
The only way to end the jihadi threat is to change the dynamics on the Syrian ground, persuading Moscow and Tehran-- and Assad --that they must compromise at the bargaining table.
Again, this does not mean deploying U.S. troops (it's frustrating when President Obama keeps raising this straw man). This is about aiding Syrians who want to fight the jihadis who want to harm us, too.
"It's not a lost cause," Ford insists. Not if Obama will finally make the decision to commit the necessary support to moderate Syrian rebels, rather than wait for a suicide bomber to return from Syria to Washington.