Syria is believed to have a formidable arsenal of chemical weapons, including sarin and mustard gas, although the exact dimensions are not known.
While the conflict drags on, there are widening fears that the civil war will ignite neighboring countries, including Lebanon, where pro- and anti-Assad forces have clashed. On Friday, the Pentagon said the U.S. will send two batteries of Patriot missiles and 400 troops to Turkey as part of a NATO force also including Germany and the Netherlands. The force is meant to protect Turkish territory from potential Syrian missile attack.
A number of Syrian shells have landed in Turkish territory since the conflict began in March 2011, and Turkey has been one of Assad’s harshest critics.
But NATO’s move was not a step toward intervention in Syria. In a statement Friday, NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu said ‘‘the deployment will be defensive only.’’
‘‘It will not support a no-fly zone or any offensive operation. Its aim is to deter any threats to Turkey, to defend Turkey’s population and territory and to de-escalate the crisis on NATO’s south-eastern border,’’ Lungescu said.
Many rebel fighters are bitter that the U.S. and others have not intervened to stop Assad’s air force as they did in Libya against Gadhafi.
The fractious nature of the opposition and the increasing power of Islamic extremists among the rebel fighters have been a boon for the regime, as well.
On Wednesday, the U.S., Europe and their allies recognized the newly reorganized opposition leadership, giving it a stamp of credibility though it remains to be seen if the new bloc holds much sway with fighters on the ground.
Those fighters are a growing problem for the West. Some of the rebels’ greatest battlefield successes have been carried out by extremist groups with links to al-Qaida. The West, of course, does not want see such organizations wielding any power in the region — much less running Syria.
Moreover, the opposition appears split over how much to embrace the Islamist fighters.
The president of the new opposition coalition, Mouaz al-Khatib, has disagreed publicly with the U.S. decision to blacklist Jabhat al-Nusra, an al-Qaida-linked force that has proved to be one of the most successful fighting groups in the war against Assad.
Support for al-Nusra appears to be gaining traction among those who support the rebellion — no doubt alienating many Syrians who hope for a secular future. On Friday, according to amateur video footage posted online, some crowds calling for the downfall of the regime rejected the U.S. designation of al-Nusra as terrorists and carried signs that said: ‘‘We are all Jabhat al-Nusra.’’
The AP could not independently verify the videos, but they appeared to be in line with other reports coming out of the area.
The threat of Islamic extremism resonates deeply in Syria, a country with many ethnic and religious minorities. The Assad dynasty has long tried to promote a secular identity in Syria, largely because it has relied heavily on its own Alawite base in the military and security forces in an overwhelmingly Sunni country. Assad has warned repeatedly that the country’s turmoil will throw Syria into chaos, religious extremism and sectarian divisions.
The opposition has so far failed to put forth a credible alternative to Assad, a shortcoming which has kept many Syrians on the fence even as he appears increasingly to be losing control.
‘‘The opposition is not a government,’’ Landis said. ‘‘They do not offer social security or retirement payments or a pension. There are millions of Syrians who depend on that government. ... Can this new coalition that America just recognized step in and take their place?’’
Still, Landis said, Syrians will likely abandon the regime in increasing numbers — but ‘‘with a fearful heart.’’
‘‘They've got nobody to look after them,’’ he said. ‘‘There are 23 million Syrians who are going to be out of luck, out of food, and out of money.’’