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A Free Syrian Army fighter rests in Aleppo's Karm al-Jabal district, June 8, 2013.MUZAFFAR SALMAN/Reuters

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The western world, so sure a year ago that Syria's Bashar al-Assad regime was doomed, now faces a decision about what to do if he starts to really win the civil war.

The United States, Britain and France, are all thinking again about arming Syrian rebels. Canada wants nothing to do with it.

It will make for a head-scratching chat when Stephen Harper joins other leaders of the G8 countries at a meeting in Northern Ireland next week. Canada, fearing the rebels are intertwined with radical jihadists, is among the coolest to new, muscular efforts to help them, outflanked only by Russia, Syria's ally. The other western nations all share some of same concerns as Canada, and now back the idea of peace talks. But they also have to shiver at the prospect that the Assad regime forces, backed by Hezbollah, will retake firm control of Syria.

In recent weeks, the momentum has shifted, and government forces are now gaining ground, retaking strategically important towns like Qusair. The regime's forces say they are preparing an assault on Aleppo, Syria's biggest city, which is divided between Assad forces and rebel militias.

That has prompted a re-assessment within the Obama Administration about the idea of arming rebels. Secretary of State John Kerry cancelled his trip to the Middle East to return to Washington for talks on Syria. After all, the shift on the ground threatens to uproot what's left of the U.S. strategy on Syria.

The Obama Administration once blamed the Russians for backing the Assad regime, and gave little support to the calls for peace talks between the regime and rebels. But they, too, have become concerned about the hodge-podge of militias, and extremists, in the Syrian opposition, and the prospect that the regime's defeat will only lead to more chaotic sectarian fighting. In May, Mr. Kerry joined Russia in supporting peace talks, which are supposed to be held in Geneva this month.

But opposition leaders have balked at attending, and the top military commander, General Salim Idris, said Friday that the rebels have been so weakened in recent fighting that they won't go to peace talks until they have received arms to shift the balance of power.

Those peace talks are now the focal point of the Harper government's slim Syria policy, too. But it has not dropped its opposition to arming rebels. Foreign Minister John Baird, expressing concern about the influence of jihadists, has argued that sending more weapons into Syria will only make things worse. Shifts in the fighting and re-assessment in Washington has not budged that view. "Our position on arming the rebels hasn't changed," Rick Roth, a spokesman for Mr. Baird, said Monday.

Back in 2011, western leaders, including Stephen Harper, were all calling for Bashar al-Assad to go. Mr. Harper argued that his killing of his own people had disqualified him from any role in running the country. The Harper government, like the U.S., blamed Russia for supporting the regime, and insisted talks that included President al-Assad were impossible. Western capitals, including Ottawa, said the Assad regime's downfall was only a matter of time.

Now Ottawa, worried about radical groups in the opposition, supports U.S. and Russian-sponsored peace talks that include the regime. So do other western nations. But it's not at all clear they will take off.

And the prospect that Bashar al-Assad will gradually reassert control by military means now has to alarm western countries, too. Among other things, he has leaned on fighters from Hezbollah, the Iran-backed Shia militia from neighbouring Lebanon. Western nations can hardly smile at the prospect of a triumphant Bashar al-Assad, owing no allegiance to anyone but his military and a strengthened Hezbollah, regaining full control after a war that has already killed more than 80,000.

That's why western politicians like British foreign minister William Hague sound so torn about what to do. Britain, he told the BBC, will be "very reluctant" to arm Syrian rebels. On the other hand, he added, tens of thousands are being killed without the means to defend themselves: "As things stand today, the world is failing the people of Syria."

Campbell Clark covers foreign affairs in Ottawa.