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When it comes to Syria, time is running out on the wait-and-see option. President Obama's reluctance in getting the United States embroiled in another complex conflict with no clear outcome is understandable, and we share it. But the prospects of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad relinquishing power as part of an international settlement have significantly diminished in recent days. At the same time, the potential for the conflict spreading into volatile neighboring countries grows.
Assad forces, openly backed by the Lebanese-based militant terrorist group Hezbollah, have begun regaining territory from rebel forces. Terror groups abound on both sides. Jabhat al-Nursa has emerged as among the most disciplined and effective forces among the myriad anti-Assad militias. It shares with al-Qaida an extreme global jihadist ideology. In many respects Syria has become a proxy war between Shiite and Sunni states, radicals and moderates.
Unless handled deftly by the international community, even the fall of Assad would be no guarantee of peace or end the threat of a regional conflict. It could well be the prelude to a civil war between rebels who want to restore the moderate and secular domestic policies Syria was known for and groups such as Jabhat al-Nursa that seek a theocracy.
And there is the threat of the Syrian government's chemical weapons falling into the hands of terrorists.
In his visit to Russia, Secretary of State John F. Kerry secured that nation's support in pushing for a political settlement. But, as always, Russian President Vladimir Putin has proved a tricky partner. Russia recently sent advanced anti-ship cruise missiles to Syria and Putin's old pal, Assad. President Putin does not want a chemical-armed, fundamental Islamic regime on his nation's doorstep and apparently feels strengthening Assad's hand going into negotiations will diminish the odds of that.
The Obama administration, meanwhile, should work with European allies to find the best way to get weapons to forces led by Gen. Salim Idriss, head of the Supreme Military Command and moderate by the region's standards. There is no guarantee of keeping weapons out of the wrong hands, but the administration can no longer afford to let that fear prevent it from being a player in this messy affair.
President Obama's well-known penchant for weighing all options has largely served him well, but in cases of no good options it can become a liability.