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Syria’s Descent into Civil War

More people (100,000 plus) fled the Syrian civil war in August than in any month since the conflict began 18 months ago, the UN reports. Total refugees: 235,300, give or take. Five thousand people were killed in August, according to an opposition group. UNICEF tallies last week’s deaths alone at 1,600.

Writes Jon Lee Anderson in the New Yorker:

For months, policymakers and pundits have debated whether Syria was in a state of civil war. Today, it undeniably is, but not in the schoolbook sense of the phrase, with its connotation of two tidily opposed sides—Yanks and Rebs squaring off at Antietam. Instead, the war comprises a bewildering assortment of factions…The country has Christians of several sects, Kurds, non-Alawite Shiites, and Turkomans, along with Palestinians, Armenians, Druze, Bedouin nomads, and even some Gypsies. Each group has its own political and economic interests and traditional alliances, some of which overlap and some of which conflict. There are Kurds who are close to the regime and others who are opposed. Around the cities of Hama and Homs, the regime’s paramilitary thugs are Alawite; in Aleppo, hired Sunnis often do the dirty work.

It’s a bewildering mess inside Syria and an impossible problem for diplomats abroad. Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN’s new Syria mediator, acknowledged his task as “impossible” and said “we’re not doing much.”

A number of top officials have pushed the Obama administration to arm the rebels, including, most recently, Condi Rice. But the rebels are only very loosely united by strategic goals, ideology, religion, and cultural background. Some are undoubtedly terrorists and veterans from fights against American and NATO forces in Iraq, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. Arming them might hasten Assad’s fall, but what comes next wouldn’t be pretty.

We can only hope that the White House has a strategy for Syria that it isn’t sharing with the rest of us, and that some diplomatic efforts are taking place behind the scenes. What we can see looks like total failure of the old policy and a serious lack of ideas about what could replace it.

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