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A Free Syrian Army fighter points his weapon as he tries to locate forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in Aleppo on Sept. 4, 2013.STRINGER/Reuters

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Parliaments across the Western world are suddenly standing up and questioning military strikes. The most common question is: "What comes after strikes?"

That's been the tricky issue that has held back U.S. and Western involvement in Syria for two years. They oppose President Bashar al-Assad, but given the nature of the Syrian opposition – it's divided between shifting factions including Islamist extremists – it's better not to help it too much.

But the choice to hold rebels at arm's length has had its own consequences. And choices are dwindling. The debate on strikes shows that. Some argue that nothing can be done about a dictator who gasses people with sarin, because it will lead to more powerful extremists. But Syria could have both, and the whole mess can spread past its borders.

Syria's war will go on, with extremists on the rise, strikes or not. Any end goal short of horrible disaster, it seems, involves bolstering the country's moderate opposition.

Ironically, the skeptical legislators in Britain and the United States, who have felt the decade-old hangover from rushing into Iraq and slowed the move to strike Syria, may have triggered another result: It might lead President Barack Obama into a bigger military attack than he had planned.

In his bid for support in Congress, Mr. Obama turned first to more hawkish Republicans, such as Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham. They wanted a serious strike or none at all, to "degrade" the Assad regime's ability, and a plan to "upgrade" the rebels. And they said that, at the White House on Monday, they got their first indications the Obama administration is putting together that kind of strategy.

For Prime Minister Stephen Harper, the self-described "reluctant convert" to the need to strike Syria's Assad regime, this must be an uneasy plan. Canada, unlike most Western nations, hasn't even recognized the Syrian opposition coalition as the voice of Syrians, arguing it's too sectarian and hasn't distanced itself from extremists. Mr. Harper's government adamantly opposed arming rebels.

Mr. Obama asserts he's only planning punitive strikes to deter Mr. al-Assad from using chemical weapons again, and he does not want to get the United States involved in Syria's civil war. But the only way to make Mr. al-Assad feel pain now is to damage his firepower advantage over rebels, which by definition helps the opposition, or at least some of it.

The Syrian rebels are a hodge-podge of factions, Islamists among them.

From the outside, there's the Syrian opposition coalition, a political umbrella group that includes pro-democracy secular nationalists, Muslim Brotherhood members, and some Islamist Salafists. But its members are dominated by exiles, and it has suffered low credibility with local opposition councils and rebel fighters in the country.

Those fighters are divided up into hundreds of units of various sizes, and, although there's now a Supreme Military Council headed by rebel General Salim Idriss, it's more of a political umbrella and there's no overall command that can give orders. Even its three big groupings – the Free Syrian Army, the Syrian Liberation Front and the Syrian Islamic Front – are more affiliations than armies. Although the FSA is considered more secular and the SIF more conservative Salafist, there's a variety of stripes. And outside that umbrella, there are other distinct groups, such as the al-Qaeda-linked al-Nusra front.

In all that mix, it's the rebel units with funding, ammunition, weapons and resources that have success in fighting Assad regime forces, and the irregulars, including Hezbollah fighters, allied with Mr. al-Assad.

Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, has argued that, while the U.S. and the West were reluctant to finance the Supreme Military Council when it was set up late last year, the rebels raised money elsewhere, from patrons in the Gulf. Much of it went to Salafists and other extremists. They gained firepower – and sway.

There is a risk that arming the rebels broadly will lead to weapons falling into extremists hands. But Mr. Tabler argues the U.S. should instead try "discriminate support and arming" – funding the secular-nationalist rebels they know best, to help increase their stature.

That's a difficult strategy. It won't win a civil war, but it might increase the moderates' sway in the opposition and change things enough to force negotiations with elements of the regime. But it may now be less disastrous than staying on the sidelines.

Campbell Clark writes about foreign affairs from Ottawa.

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