The Syrian civil war has reached a point at which the international community – that is to say, the world’s responsible powers – needs to take a more active hand, still with caution, favouring carefully selected insurgent groups that are not Salafist, and have no affinities to al-Qaeda.
The greatest danger in the medium term is that Syria will be fragmented into an unstable patchwork of warlords and militias, comparable to Somalia, Lebanon or the former Yugoslavia in their civil-war periods.
In such chaos, a group such as Jabhat al-Nusra, a Syrian group affiliated to the Iraqi factions that are in turn aligned with al-Qaeda, could well find and keep a foothold. On Dec. 11, the United States designated Jabhat al-Nusra as a terrorist organization. The U.S. was right to do so, making an important differentiation.
But the United States and other Western countries should be prepared to consider supplying equipment, such as surface-to-air missiles, to certain opposition groups. The Muslim Brotherhood was severely repressed by Hafiz al-Assad, the father of President Bashar al-Assaid, but it is probably the one large opposition movement with longstanding roots in the country. Of course, the Brotherhood has many flaws – as Egypt and indeed Turkey show – but the West would be ill-advised to treat members of a likely future Syrian government simply as carriers of ideological plague. For one thing, these Sunni Islamists would release Syria from its status as a client-state of Iran.
The opposition to Mr. al-Assad has now had so much success in so many parts of the country that it is most unlikely that his Baathist regime can survive for very long. The families of much of the ruling elite are already being moved to an enclave dominated by the Alawite sect, to which the Assad family and most of the high ranks of the Baathist Party belong.
If Mr. al-Assad and his colleagues resort to chemical weapons, foreign intervention would become almost inevitable and indeed morally desirable. For the present, the Western world ought to apply a range of incentives and pressures to encourage pragmatism among the rising factions of Syria.