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Extremists Filling Power Vacuum in Syria

The Syrian civil war is not only continuing to claim a ghastly toll within Syria, with a continuing regime assault on Aleppo–it is also now sucking Lebanon into the muck too. Shiite clans within Lebanon are kidnapping Syrian rebel fighters who are said to be holding their clansmen prisoners. In retaliation Lebanese Sunnis are threatening to kidnap Lebanese Shiites. Thus Syria’s instability is upsetting the delicate balance of power within Lebanon, raising concerns that, two decades after the end of its bloody civil war, which claimed 100,000 lives, there could be a recurrence of fighting within Lebanon.

This is yet another indictment of the understandable but misguided hands-off policy the U.S. and its allies are following in Syria, where we appear to be content to stand by and let the fighting take its course–much as previous administrations did in the former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s. The terrible consequences of our inaction can be measured not only in regional destabilization but also in a growing vacuum of power within Syria which extremists are trying to fill. Former journalist Bartle Bull, who recently visited Syria, offers this revealing exchange with a rebel commander:

Mohamed said he would happily accept help from Washington. “We need everything.” He is not interested in help from Al Qaeda. Still, America’s refusal to get serious about military aid provides the extremists with their only opening. “I can take Al Qaeda’s money,” another irate commander told me. “Is that what you want me to do?”

It would be a tragedy if this and other rebel commanders were in fact driven into Al Qaeda’s camp by neglect in the West. It does not have to be this way. As Bull writes: “Providing the rebels with as few as 500 Stinger missiles and 1,000 tank-busting R.P.G.-7’s could potentially cut the conflict’s length in half. And grounding Mr. Assad’s air force, keeping his tanks off the roads, and neutralizing his command-and-control would be likely to bring him down within a couple of months.”

I would hesitate to provide sophisticated surface-to-air missiles to the rebels, given the danger that they could wind up in the wrong hands. But we should provide better anti-tank weapons and, in lieu of Stingers, the U.S. and its allies should simply declare a no-fly zone to ground Assad’s air force. As Bull notes, this, along with some targeted air strikes of the kind that NATO mounted in Libya, could hasten Assad’s ouster and speed attempts to reimpose a semblance of authority in Syria. Allowing the conflict to take its course, by contrast, virtually guarantees that it will foment dangerous extremism inside Syria and out.


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