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Aid Syrian Rebels after Assad Falls

There can be little doubt now that Syria is tumbling into the abyss.

No, I’m not talking about the ongoing civil war that has killed 80,000 or more Syrians. That’s certainly tragic enough. Yet another big problem awaits the country just after President Bashar al-Assad leaves office, by whatever means (which seems certain to happen sooner rather than later).

The strongest hint of what is to come flared up just a few days ago, when al-Qaeda in Iraq declared that the Islamic terrorist group that has sprung up in Syria, the Nusra Front, has now merged with its larger and better equipped Iraqi cousin.

What’s behind this? Not just the fraternity of killers. Al-Qaeda in Iraq and the Nusra Front are Sunni terror groups. And Assad’s Alawite sect is Shiite. It’s the same conflict that has roiled Iraq since 2003 and continues today. After all, Iraq’s governing party is Shiite, too.

So there’s a strong possibility that the day after Assad falls will see the onset of another civil war between the legitimate Syrian rebels—many of them former Syrian soldiers and officers who deserted—and al-Qaeda, fighting for control of the country.

All this comes as the United States and other Western countries are talking about stepping up aid to the Syrian rebels. The US is considering additional non-lethal aid, such as flack jackets and armored personnel carriers. But Europe is discussing lifting an arms embargo.

That would be a mistake. With those rival factions in Syria, who knows where those weapons would actually go? Consider what happened in Libya after Muammar Qaddafi’s government fell. In mid-February, Egyptian security officers seized two tons of explosives on the way to Gaza through Sinai. The matériel was Libyan. The Islamic extremists who took over northern Mali were also using Libyan weapons.

“The flow of weapons from Libya has armed terrorists in the region” and is “empowering al-Qaeda,” said Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, just after a recent trip to the region.

Several senior American officials have also advocated training a cadre of Syrian fighters. We have tried that in Afghanistan, but scores of American and allied forces have been killed by the very fighters they were training. Will we be better able to detect extremists who infiltrate the training operation in Syria than we are in Afghanistan? I doubt it.

So that leaves the United States with few good choices. The best option seems to be to have a NATO or United Nations peacekeeping force ready to occupy the nation just after Assad falls.

It’s likely that a Syrian–al-Qaeda civil war will still break out. But at least Western occupying forces can secure the government, install the Syrian Governing Council, and then help the new leaders fight al-Qaeda.

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Iraq