The Syrian conflict is almost two years old. More than 40,000 Syrians have died, an estimated half million have fled the country, and the violence shows no signs of subsiding. Recently, rebel forces seem to have gained the upper hand in the conflict, and they are in direct control of about 40 percent of the country. They have brought the battle right up to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's doorstep, at times closing off the airport in Damascus. But Assad remains in control, and he has reacted to rebel gains by becoming steadily more violent, most recently launching Scud ballistic missiles against his opponents.
The original anti-Assad protesters, who were largely peaceful and refrained from calling for the regime's ouster, were sidelined long ago by the escalating war. Iran and Hezbollah have provided weapons to the Syrian army, and donors in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf have sent a steady supply of munitions -- mostly small arms -- to the opposition. This support has primarily reached the more extreme groups, with whom the donors are more ideologically and politically aligned. Last week, one such group, the al Qaeda–affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra, was reportedly able to capture the command center of the Syrian army's 111th regiment. The move was a blow to the Assad regime but also an indication of the extent to which Syria's more moderate rebels have been eclipsed by the impressive successes of more radical groups. Today, the moderates are the only forces in the country without a steady flow of foreign arms; the European Union and the United States have refused to send weapons directly to the fighters. Fearing utter obsolescence, moderate groups have repeatedly called on the West to provide them with the ammunition they need to overthrow Assad.
For several sound reasons, Western decision-makers have rejected any notion of comprehensively arming Syria's opposition. For one, the kaleidoscope of opposition groups in Syria had seemed too fractured, and their ideological leanings too opaque, to merit support. Second, policymakers worried that lawlessness and corruption, were sobering reminders of the challenges that might follow the end of fighting. Although the Libyan rebels succeeded in toppling the Qaddafi regime, they were less successful in controlling -- or unwilling to control -- the dispersal of arms after their victory.
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