With potential American strikes against Syrian chemical weapons-related targets averted for now, attention once again turns to the Syrian opposition. This is a crucial issue because the main way the West and the Arab states can, and should, act to influence the Syrian conflict is through a robust engagement with acceptable armed opposition forces.
As long as the Damascus dictatorship continues to enjoy impunity, air supremacy and unrestrained support from Iran, Hezbollah, and Russia, the existing power structure has no incentive whatsoever to look for an agreement, nor can it be forced into a de facto stalemate that can provide a modicum of stability.
They think they're winning, and have no reason to adjust either their narrative or their calculations. So they will stick with the story they have clung to since they began gunning down unarmed protesters in the first few months of the uprising: that Syria is under attack by foreign-led and inspired al-Qaeda terrorists.
Since the days of the American invasion of Iraq, President Bashar al-Assad and the jihadists have had a bizarre kind of partnership in which they loath yet find each other mutually useful. This Iraqi pattern is replaying itself in Syria. Indeed, it's so useful that the potential for Syrian and Iranian regime penetration of certain aspects of the jihadist leadership cannot be discounted.
Meanwhile, Westerners who don't want to have anything to do with the conflict are quaffing this Kool-Aid with evident gusto. The Assad/al-Qaeda binary is very appealing, even comforting, to many Westerners who just don't care about Syria. It is a perfect excuse for not only inaction, but apathy and indifference.
As French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius reportedly observed, "much of the public appeared to think that the choice in Syria was between Mr. Assad’s government and Islamic militants, but he said that was false."
Al-Qaeda groups in Syria are small, but disproportionately funded and empowered. Among the rest of the fragmented rebel groups, the majority are affiliated with the Supreme Military Command (SMC) of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Added to that are the nationalistic and anti-jihadist, but religiously conservative, Salafist forces that range from the fairly moderate to the more doctrinaire.
A recent evaluation by Barak Barfi estimated that about 80,000 troops fall under the FSA umbrella, with another 40,000 moderate Islamists, 30,000 more hardline but nationalistic Islamists, and 6,000 "foreign jihadists." Even allowing for a doubling of jihadist figures to 12,000, this illustrates that the neglected and underfunded nationalist groups comprise the large majority of fighting personnel in the Syrian opposition.
It is imperative for the West and its Arab allies to move quickly to help turn them into a unified, streamlined, and moderate military and political force that can serve as a functional opposition to marginalize al-Qaeda while combating, and ultimately potentially negotiating with elements of, the existing power structure.
Even sensationalistic claims that grossly exaggerate the presence and power of al-Qaeda or other "hardline Islamist" forces militate for such a policy, unless, of course, that's a situation one finds acceptable or desirable.
Cutting through the dizzying minutia some clear core realities can be discerned.
First, there is a sizable body of nationalistic and anti-jihadist armed rebels who desperately need support of all kinds.
Second, al-Qaeda-related forces in Syria are in big trouble. They have recently split into two quarreling factions: Jabhat al-Nusra and the "Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant" (ISIS). ISIS appears to be both prevailing in this split and systematically repeating all the mistakes which made al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) disintegrate into a vicious irrelevancy: overreaching, excessive violence, and a refusal to cooperate with anyone that will not submit to their authority.
This is an ideal situation for Mr. Assad, but no one else.
A grim pattern has emerged in the north: rebel forces take control of areas, and ISIS then attempts to establish theocratic dictatorships in towns such as Raqqa where they stand accused of making the Assad dictatorship look benign. Their demand is simple: total, unquestioning obedience to their vicious, obscurantist rule or death.
It is difficult to exaggerate the extent to which they have become despised by local populations and other insurgent groups. Popular demonstrations calling for the ouster of ISIS from Raqqa have been large and continuous, and met with the utmost brutality by the jihadists. ISIS is on the same path of systematic self-destruction as its AQI predecessor in Iraq, but much more rapidly.
Third, an influx of Arab state support for the SMC has shifted the war to the south, where jihadists are much less present than in the north, and also altered the balance of power within the armed opposition itself.
The present moment presents a perfect opportunity for outside forces to take advantage of the split within the al-Qaeda factions and greatly expand and enhance the support for nationalists opposed to both al-Qaeda and the regime.
Searching for "secularists" as opposed to "Islamists" in this variegated, fractured, and fluid opposition movement is futile and pointless. The question is, can groups that will stand in opposition to both al-Qaeda and Mr. Assad be identified, supported, and strengthened? The answer is yes.
The more support they receive, the stronger they will become. And, if such support is contingent on increasing moderation and a growing commitment to a tolerant, pluralistic Syrian future – a goal many such groups already say they fully share – they will be greatly strengthened.
The only reasons for not engaging in a massive project of support for moderate armed opposition forces – including ones that could fall somewhere in the taxonomy of "Islamist" – would be either not to care at all about the outcome in Syria, or to implicitly or explicitly support either the long-term survival of the Damascus regime or the indefinite continuation of the conflict.
The war will go on, and the West and its Arab allies can either act belatedly to hasten its conclusion and influence its outcome. Or they can sit back and watch the chaos continue to flourish, entirely to the advantage of the regime.