This is why Obama won't intervene in Syria
Ultimately, it would be a question of who we go to war against - Assad or the jihadis?
In Syria's largest city, Aleppo, rebels aligned with Al Qaeda control the power plant, run the bakeries and head a court that applies Islamic law. Elsewhere, they have seized government oil fields, put employees back to work and now profit from the crude they produce.
Across Syria, rebel-held areas are dotted with Islamic courts staffed by lawyers and clerics, and by fighting brigades led by extremists. Even the Supreme Military Council, the umbrella rebel organization whose formation the West had hoped would sideline radical groups, is stocked with commanders who want to infuse Islamic law into a future Syrian government.
Nowhere in rebel-controlled Syria is there a secular fighting force to speak of.
All those high profile defections of Syrian officers and men over the past year - defectors who were supposed to make up the bulk of the Free Syrian Army - have melted away or been absorbed by the jihadists. Obviously, western governments are not announcing this turn of events because it represents the most spectacular policy failure since the Iranian revolution. We've been encouraging the Gulf states to give arms to these groups to fight Assad and sure enough, they are beginning to turn the tide toward victory.
But what kind of "victory?"
This is the landscape President Obama confronts as he considers how to respond to growing evidence that Syrian officials have used chemical weapons, crossing a "red line" he had set. More than two years of violence have radicalized the armed opposition fighting the government of President Bashar al-Assad, leaving few groups that both share the political vision of the United States and have the military might to push it forward.
Among the most extreme groups is the notorious Al Nusra Front, the Qaeda-aligned force declared a terrorist organization by the United States, but other groups share aspects of its Islamist ideology in varying degrees.
"Some of the more extremist opposition is very scary from an American perspective, and that presents us with all sorts of problems," said Ari Ratner, a fellow at the Truman National Security Project and former Middle East adviser in the Obama State Department. "We have no illusions about the prospect of engaging with the Assad regime -- it must still go -- but we are also very reticent to support the more hard-line rebels."
Syrian officials recognize that the United States is worried that it has few natural allies in the armed opposition and have tried to exploit that with a public campaign to convince, or frighten, Washington into staying out of the fight. At every turn they promote the notion that the alternative to Mr. Assad is an extremist Islamic state.
The Islamist character of the opposition reflects the main constituency of the rebellion, which has been led since its start by Syria's Sunni Muslim majority, mostly in conservative, marginalized areas. The descent into brutal civil war has hardened sectarian differences, and the failure of more mainstream rebel groups to secure regular arms supplies has allowed Islamists to fill the void and win supporters.
The religious agenda of the combatants sets them apart from many civilian activists, protesters and aid workers who had hoped the uprising would create a civil, democratic Syria.
This is a far worse blunder than Egypt or any of the other "Arab Spring" revolutions. The same myopia that sees the Muslim Brotherhood as "moderate," blindly led the West to believe that the few secularists in the Syrian opposition - most of them living outside the country - would be able to build a political coalition that reflected a pluralistic, democratic Syria.
But the Sunnis have never been interested in anything but establishing a state where their dominance is assured. Much like the Shias in Iraq who could care less about the Sunni minority, the Sunnis in Syria are looking to establish an Islmaic state.
How did we miss this? When you imagine things that aren't there - "moderate" Islamists - your worldview is likely to reject the nose on your face if it conflicts with your version of reality. We are paying the price for our governmnet's stupidity. And even if Assad employs large scale attacks of chemical weapons, we aren't likely to intervene and help establish a radical, enemy government in Syria that would be a threat to every nation in the region.