Other factors make a Syrian crisis much more dangerous than Libya.
First, Al Qaeda has deep connections in Syria that were developed and exploited to smuggle foreign fighters, money, and explosives into Iraq at the height of the Iraq War. Though mostly dormant, those cells could become active. The could again export violence into Iraq where the coming absence of US forces already threatens to rekindle the Sunni-Shia civil war that raged from 2005-2007. Add to that potential Sunni-Shia violence in Syria, and it is not far-fetched to imagine a conflagration that could engulf major portions of the region.
Second, the ties between Iran and Syria, though showing increasing signs of strain, are still strong. It’s fair to say that Iran will not let its greatest Arab ally fall without a fight. How would the Iranian regime react to a destabilized Syria? Would it react differently if Iraq were dragged back into levels of widespread, extreme sectarian violence?
The answers to both questions are difficult to assess. But one thing isn’t difficult to see: Iran has lost much of its fear of the US. As long as Iran perceives the US as war-weary, weak, and unlikely to interfere, little will prevent it from taking significant covert action to support the Assad regime in Syria.
The chain of events that could result from a destabilized, chaotic Syria is mind-boggling. Suffice it to say that Syria is not another Libya. The Obama administration needs to think long and hard about whether “leading from behind” will be sufficient in wake of the violence now raging in Syria.