WASHINGTON — Here we go again.
That's surely how many Americans greeted last week's news that U.S. forces, with their British and French allies, bombed Syria's chemical weapons facilities in retaliation for the rogue nation's poison gas attack on its own citizens a week earlier.
A bit of war-weariness is understandable after 15 fitful years of American military efforts in the world's most troubled region, but the truth is that the bombing matters because Syria really matters.
• It's the world's most volatile crossroads. Seven years into Syria's civil war, it's easy to lose sight of the stakes, to just see this as yet another faraway hellhole that's blowing itself to bits.
But Syria is much more than that. It's a place where a worldwide conflict could begin.
The Syria war sprung out of the "Arab Spring," and it started as a local battle between Syrian strongman Bashar Assad and rebel groups. At first the conflict stemmed from the fact that Assad is a minority president, a member of the Alawite Muslim minority in a land where Sunni Muslims make up the majority.
The conflict quickly morphed, though, into a proxy war for the tensions roiling the entire Middle East – namely the centuries-old conflict between Sunni and Shiite Muslims. The Shiite regime in Iran, long an Assad ally, rushed to his rescue in hopes of preventing Syria from becoming yet another hostile Sunni enemy. So did Russia.
Meantime, the region's Shiite states rushed to support the Syrian rebels. And after the ISIS terror group gained control of a huge swath of rural Syria, the U.S. fought back with the aid of the stateless minority called the Kurds – who are equally hated by both Assad and Turkish strongman Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
Add it all up, and you have a Byzantine mix of loyalties and rivalries that could explode beyond Syria's borders in a regionwide – or even worldwide – conflict. The U.S. would inevitably be drawn into that battle to protect Israel as well as its still-important oil supply in the Gulf states.
• It's becoming Iran's playground. If the Syrian conflict has a winner so far, it's Iran – which many Americans view as an evil empire.
Iran enlisted its allies in Hezbollah, the anti-Israel zealots from Lebanon, to help prop up Assad. What's more, Iran has become so deeply involved in Syria that it now almost has a clear pathway through Iraq and Syria all the way to the Mediterranean – a "land corridor" that would be hugely important to the Iranian military if the conflict were to escalate.
And Iran already seems to have its way in some of the skies over Syria. Proof came in February, when an Iranian drone violated Israeli airspace, prompting the Israelis to shoot it down.
Think about that for a second. Iran – which has repeatedly said it can destroy Israel – now seems to have its way in the land and the skies of a nation just to the northeast of Israel. And remember, the U.S. has pledged to defend Israel.
• It's Russia's playground, too. Russia has been a Syrian ally dating back to the Cold War. In fact, the Russians' only navy port on the Mediterranean is in Syria – and it's being equipped for use by nuclear warships.
The increasingly aggressive Russian regime, then, of course wants to protect its interests in Syria, which is why it has sent troops to boost Assad and even denied his very obvious use of chemical weapons.
• Chemical weapons are illegal. Chemical weapons spread fear along with poison, as they can kill in whatever direction the wind shifts. That's why a worldwide treaty banning them was signed in 1925, and why their use provokes outrage.
Obviously, the U.S. has a stake in preventing the use of such weapons, particularly in a region where a wider war could break out someday.
• ISIS is still there. Take a look at this map. You'll see two black splotches. That's the territory still controlled by ISIS, the hateful extremist group that dominated large swaths of Syria and Iraq until U.S. forces pretty much defeated them.
The U.S. still has troops there in hopes of preventing the terror group from staging a comeback, although President Trump has expressed some doubts as to whether they should stay.
• Our allies are endangered there. The Kurds helped the U.S. in Iraq a decade ago and helped the U.S. defeat ISIS in both Iraq and Syria. The result: As that map shows, Kurdish forces control a huge swath of northeastern Syria
And if either try, that would pose the U.S. with a difficult moral question: Do we allow our allies to be killed?
• There seems to be no way out. This, above all, is Syria's bottom line. Even though Assad is gaining ground and strength, all the potentially explosive geopolitical problems outlined above remain.
So when President Trump tweeted "Mission Accomplished" after the U.S. destroyed Syrian chemical weapons facilities last week, it's best to think he was referring to the mission of punishing Syria, not fixing Syria.
The larger mission – preventing Syria from exploding into a far wider war – remains one of the most pressing missions of these times.
President Trump, at his estate in West Palm Beach, Fla., meets with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to discuss North Korea … The Supreme Court hears arguments in three cases, two of which are very arcane, but one that's hugely important, as it involves when companies can be forced to collect sales taxes on online sales ... California Gov. Jerry Brown speaks at the National Press Club … The National Endowment for Democracy holds a discussion on "Russia as a Global Challenge."
The New York Times explores the dilapidated state of America's classrooms ... The Washington Post shows how recent actions on the federal deficit pave the way for more deficits ... Vanity Fair surveys how the right has reacted to former FBI director James Comey's book, "A Higher Loyalty" ... Vox explains the legal battle over documents the FBI seized from Michael Cohen, President Trump's personal attorney ... And The Atlantic notes that the courts are giving Trump fits.