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Syria options

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As the Syrian rebellion enters its third year with nearly 70,000 dead, the Obama administration is moving ahead with plans to increase aid to the rebels trying to force President Bashar al-Assad from power

Leaders of the Syrian opposition met Wednesday with Secretary of State John Kerry to discuss broader U.S. aid, including weaponry. Secretary Kerry hinted at “stepped up” American involvement Sunday. U.S. officials declined to be more specific after the meeting, although the assistance could include military equipment such as body armor and night-vision goggles.

The United States could also support lifting an embargo to allow other nations to arm the rebels. President Obama has resisted taking that step out of fear the weaponry could fall into the hands of extremists. The fear was reinforced by the troubling claim of the al-Qaida-linked Islamic State of Iraq that it had merged with the Syrian extremist organization Jabhat al-Nusra, which has been designated a terrorist organization by the United States.

Al-Nusra’s leader later challenged the claim but did not deny they were working together, which could strengthen the position of militant organizations in a disorganized opposition and complicate the transition to a post-Assad government.

Further hindering any push toward military aid is the disarray within the opposition after the head of the coalition Syrian National Council stepped down. It also raises questions about what type of government would replace President Assad.

The administration’s public posture has been to provide humanitarian aid to the rebels. Rather than arms, the administration has sent about $500 million in humanitarian aid to the Syrian people and non-lethal assistance such as communication equipment, food and medical supplies to the rebels. However, the New York Times has reported that the CIA has expanded its role by helping Arab governments airlift weapons to the Free Syrian Army.

The United States has called on President Assad to step down, but he has been able to resist international demands due to the backing of Russia and Iran arming the regime.

Nonetheless, the Obama administration should be cautious in deepening the U.S. role and stand by the policy of non-lethal aid to the rebels while also pursuing with Russia a negotiated solution.

There are increasing signs of emerging sectarian warfare between Sunni and Shia Muslims, and the United States does not need to be drawn into another religious conflict as developed in Iraq.

Meanwhile, with nearly 1 million Syrians displaced by the fighting, the United States and its allies should also step up humanitarian aid to the opposition as well as neighboring Turkey and Jordan, where refugees have sought safety, to avert a humanitarian disaster.

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