As presidential contenders Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump debated last week, Syria was a sideshow. Clinton mentioned the country in passing; Trump ignored it altogether.
While they sparred over responsibility for the Islamic State, neither candidate mentioned Aleppo, a city of 2 million people reduced to rubble and under siege. At least — unlike Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson — they knew what Aleppo was. President Obama hotly rebuffs those who say his hesitancy to enforce redlines or support a no-fly zone made the Syria conflict worse.
Obama, Trump, Democratic runner-up Bernie Sanders, and even former President Bill Clinton, meanwhile, have all quipped at one point or another that the United States can't be the world's policeman.
Still, Syria's plight tugs at the heartstrings.
Almost 5 million refugees have fled their homeland, and millions more are displaced internally. The United Nations estimated 400,000 dead; an equal number have disappeared. Girls who once aspired to be doctors or lawyers now find themselves forced into child marriages in Jordan and Turkey.
Syrian regime helicopters drop bombs on hospitals, and Islamist radicals terrorize women and minorities. Syrian infants wash up dead on European shores. What was diagnosed as a stage one cancer has metastasized to stage four as the world debates prescribing an aspirin.
But is averting humanitarian tragedy reason enough to establish no-fly zones and put tens of thousands of boots on the ground? The "Responsibility to Protect" that underscored NATO intervention in Libya failed to alleviate suffering and may have made it worse. And, as bad as Syria is, the Second Congo War (1998-2003) killed 10 times as many garnering barely a yawn.
Why should the Syrian tragedy, more than others, matter to the United States?
When refugees flood neighboring countries, they distort the labor market and raise the price of food, water and rent for everyone. Jordan, perhaps America's closest Arab ally, is already on shaky ground with the king more popular outside his country than inside it, and the Islamic State enjoying popular support. With one-in-four people in Lebanon now Syrian, the country is a powder keg.
Just by virtue of Syria's proximity to Europe, the refugee flow reverberates more than those originating in Afghanistan or Darfur. Nor are refugees' motives to reach Europe a secret: Europe is not only safe, but while the European Union is home to only 7% of the world's population, it represents 25% of its economy and 50% of its social spending.
Strains in Europe are already evident. The refugee crisis has upended politics in Germany and France and reinforced doubts about the wisdom of dismantling internal borders.
There is no easy solution to the Syrian morass. Syrian President Bashar Assad cannot bring stability: His actions have made him the Islamic State's most valuable recruiter. Simply walking away is no answer. What happens in Syria doesn't stay in Syria. The country has become a driver for regional destabilization.
Iraq was secure until Islamic State fighters arising from Syria swept through Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city.
Nature abhors a vacuum but terrorists love them: With foreign fighters from 100 different countries training inside Syria, it has become an incubator for international terrorism.
In 1996, Al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden declared war on America, but American politicians ignored him. What could a rag-tag group of extremists really do to the American homeland? Five years later, we discovered detachment had a price.
Islamic State caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has similarly sworn to fly his flag over the White House. Ignoring him only brings the fight closer.