Syrian and Israeli forces exchanged fire again on Tuesday, further evidence that we are watching a full-scale regional conflict unfold rather than a civil war within Syria. As an ally of Israel, shouldn’t the U.S. offer to help if the Syrian army is blowing up Israeli trucks? On the other hand, what if helping to overthrow Bashar Al-Assad's Syrian government means supporting an opposition group funded by Al-Qaeda?
It’s easy to see why the West, particularly the United States, is reluctant to do anything more than spout platitudes from oak-panelled press conferences and provide non-lethal assistance (food and aid). Were the West to arm the Syrian opposition, it would be arming a rebel force made up of innumerable disparate factions, some of whom are declared Islamist jihadists so immersed in the atmosphere of sectarian conflict they openly devour the bleeding hearts of their enemies on YouTube. In fact, Jabhat Al-Nusra, who from their base in Raqqa have established themselves as the dominant rebel group, are thought to receive support directly from Al-Qaeda in Iraq. Those calling for intervention might not have imagined they would be advocating a joint venture between the U.S. government and a jihadist army.
The mere mention of Al-Qaeda will make U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and the United Nations wince harder at the prospect of giving military hardware to an increasingly obscure, heterogeneous opposition force. Despite the appalling record of the Assad regime, it is being overthrown by rebels incapable of forming a governing force and equally culpable of sectarian atrocities. Admittedly, negotiating a peace seems a long way off, but arming the rebels with enough firepower to win the war will not help. It may be cathartic for some to see Assad hanged in public or shot in a drain pipe but it will do nothing for the stability of the region. In reality the conflict in Syria has already become a regional one based on religious denomination rather than a civil war born of political ideological conflict. Gulf State-backed Sunni rebels, lit up by Israeli bombing raids on Damascus, kill Syrian Shia soldiers backed by Lebanese Hezbollah and Russia. Swapping Shia for Sunni and leaving a few tons of weapons in the region doesn't seem sensible.
We may see a careful balancing act of empowering the rebels to the point where Assad is weak enough to be willing to negotiate. But that seems increasingly unlikely as the government forces grow stronger (recently recapturing the important strategic town of Qusair). The West would rather not get involved, since while Syria may be a painful news story, it's better if it's not supplemented by a fatality count of allied troops. That stance looks sustainable at present, if morally distasteful to some, but it will not be if the burgeoning proliferation of chemical weapons in Syria continues.