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Watching the making of U.S. and European policy on what to do about Syria's cruel civil war is a lot like watching mold grow on cheese.

For a while you can't see anything happening. But eventually you are aware that a lot has changed -- and it is all bad. In fact, downright malodorous. That's the tipoff -- as the reek of change spreads throughout the refrigerator (see also: the region), it causes pundits to start pondering: Is it too late to reverse all that's gone so bad?

Last Saturday, in a significant development that received insignificant coverage in a week of tabloid-driven news, a senior U.S. intelligence official warned that the situation in Syria would likely get worse whether Syria's murderous president, Bashar Assad, who has killed at least 93,000 fellow Syrians, remains in power or is overthrown.

Defense Intelligence Agency Deputy Director David R. Shedd candidly painted a dark big picture of Syria's civil war and its effect on the Middle East. Speaking at the Aspen Security Forum in Colorado, Mr. Shedd said, as reported in Sunday's New York Times: "If Bashar Assad were to succeed, he will be a more ruthless leader ... If he loses and goes to an enclave inside (Syria) ... I think there will be ongoing civil war for years to come." Mr. Shedd said the most radical rebel factions, such as Nusra Front, will fight to control large parts of Syria, no matter who wins.

The latest reports from Syria uniformly conclude that things have suddenly gotten much better for Mr. Assad. It was only a few months ago that his military seemed to be back-pedalling toward defeat, as Syria's multifaceted rebels scored battleground victories. But then his allies -- Russia, Iran and Iran's auxiliary, the military wing of Hezbollah -- came to his rescue. Russia sent weapons. Iran sent weapons and reportedly is operating several camps inside Syria where it is training Syrian militia. Iran's ever-militant client, Hezbollah, has moved in forces from neighboring Lebanon.

In contrast, for two years, the leaders of the United States, Britain, France, Germany, et al., have mainly fortified Syria's various rebel forces with megatons of encouraging words. On Aug. 18, 2011, President Barack Obama firmly declared: "The time has come for President Assad to step aside." But ever since -- much to the despair of rebel leaders in Syria -- the Obama national security team has conducted a painstakingly slow assessment of what sort of aid America and its European allies should prudently send to Syria's rebels.

Obama officials are right to be wary of sending any aid that could wind up in the hands of extremist elements within the rebel coalition. But they must be every bit as wary of doing nothing of significance while America's known adversaries arm, train and fight alongside Syria's military -- and win, as they now are doing.

On June 13, the White House announced it was sending aid to Syria's rebels because Bashar Assad's forces had used chemical weapons. But rebel leaders say it's been a month and they haven't received any weapons.

Mr. Shedd warned that Syria will more likely explode than implode, causing damage that may well be devastating to America's longtime ally (and Israel's constructive neighbor) -- Jordan. Also, he warned, al-Qaida's radicals inside Iraq -- the ones we thought we'd defeated years ago -- "will emerge stronger as a result of its experience inside Syria."

Here's the dire bottom line: Syria's civil war is already destabilizing the region to the point where doing nothing, or even doing little, is no longer a viable option.

No U.S. troops on the ground; no massive air campaign that will surely result in U.S. casualties. But it is way past time for America to back up its encouraging words with weapons that can help Syria's moderate rebels win their war of survival. And it is way past time for the United States and its European allies finally to take a whiff of the redolent reality that is Syria today. It is time for them to pinch their upturned noses and at least rush to Syria's most moderate rebels the weapons they need most -- including man-portable surface-to-air missiles and anti-tank guided weapons.

Maybe, if we finally act decisively, there is still time to save our cheese.

opinion_commentary

Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service (martin.schram@gmail.com).


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