While visiting Israel this weekend, Secretary of State John Kerry said that everywhere he goes – Europe, the Gulf States, China, Japan, even New Zealand and Brazil – the first thing he is asked about is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Perhaps his hosts are simply demonstrating tact by starting off with the only issue Kerry shows any real interest in. But if this is truly their number-one concern, we should all be afraid: It means the leaders and diplomats entrusted with managing global crises don’t have the faintest understanding of what is and isn’t important.
Even if we disregard some pretty major problems elsewhere on the planet – for instance, the adventurism of nuclear North Korea, or the serious instability in another nuclear power, Pakistan, where Islamic extremists slaughter thousands of their own countrymen every year – there’s a Middle Eastern problem right next door that’s infinitely more important than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I am talking, of course, about Syria.
It’s not just that the Syrian conflict has already killed five to 10 times as many people in a mere two years – anywhere from 80,000 to 120,000, depending on whose estimate you believe – as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has in the entire 65 years of Israel’s existence (about 15,000). It’s that unlike the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Syrian conflict is rapidly destabilizing all its neighbors.
Over the last 25 years, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has manifested itself in two intifadas and two Hamas-Israel wars. Not one of them resulted in refugees fleeing to other countries, fighters pouring in from other countries, or violence inside other countries. The Syrian conflict, however, has produced large quantities of all three.
Some 1.5 million Syrian refugees have fled to other countries, mainly Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon, and the UN says the number is rising by about 250,000 per month. This is putting a serious strain on the host countries.
Moreover, citizens of most of Syria’s neighbors – especially Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan – are now fighting in Syria, acquiring skills that their countries of origin fear will be turned against their own countrymen when they return. And the problem isn’t confined to Arab countries: Hundreds of European Muslims are also fighting in Syria, where they are being further radicalized and learning military skills that will make them serious terror risks when they return. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has attracted no similar influx.
Finally, the Syrian conflict is exporting violence to all its neighbors. To cite just two of the most serious incidents, a double bombing killed 52 people in Reyhanli, a Turkish town near the Syrian border, two weeks ago, while Sunni-Alawite clashes in the Lebanese city of Tripoli have killed 29 people in the last week.
The Syrian conflict is thus a clear and present danger to every country in the region, and even to some farther afield, like the European states whose citizens are fighting there. The same hasn’t been true of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in decades: The last time this conflict drew in another country was the 1982 Lebanon War (the Israel-Hezbollah war of 2006 had nothing to do with the Palestinians). Today, the conflict affects nobody but Israelis and Palestinians themselves.
Yet the statesmen whom we count on to manage global affairs appear to be stuck in a time warp, unable to see that the map of the world’s problems has changed. And that may pose an even greater danger than the bloodbath in Syria.