WASHINGTON -- While chemical weapons disarmament proceeds in Syria, so do mass attacks on civilians. In the eastern suburbs of Damascus, where the regime used sarin, it now conducts a siege, blocking the entrance of food and the exit of refugees. This technique involves less sophisticated chemistry, but it is still effective. Aid workers report hunger and malnutrition.
Through trial and error, Bashar al-Assad is finding ways to attack women and children that the world finds more acceptable.
Events in Syria strain recent historical comparisons. Only Syria and Afghanistan have experienced the displacement of more than 6 million people. Only the violence in Syria and Rwanda has displaced tens of thousands in a single day. A third of the Syrian population has been forced from their homes; perhaps 100,000 are dead.
As the conflict grows more chaotic, it becomes more opaque. Fewer journalists are willing to risk the growing anarchy, banditry and kidnapping. And the proliferation of rebel groups, some disturbingly radical, have left many confused about who to pull for. The result is a vast tragedy within Syria and a vast emotional numbing outside it.
Sooner or later the moral sensations return, leaving historians to wonder how such atrocities were allowed to recur. But Syria is not only a humanitarian nightmare. The rise of jihadist groups in the Syrian civil war -- which had dissipated American sympathy for the rebellion -- has also raised the strategic stakes of the conflict. The establishment of safe havens in large portions of Syria would destabilize the region and expand the capabilities and reach of global terrorism. (Recall what creative extremists accomplished from bases in Afghanistan.)
The main strategic question comes down to this: Who will be able to fight al-Qaeda? America doesn't want the job. In Afghanistan and Iraq, we have spent tens of billions on training and equipment, attempting to transfer this role to their governments. In Syria, the government is brutal, sectarian and propped up by outsiders (Hezbollah and Iranian forces). Even with this support, Assad will not be able to re-establish effective control over regions he has alienated or savaged. He has shattered his legitimacy along with his country.