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Dunsmore: Syrian Update

(Host) The American decision to formally recognize a coalition of Syrian opposition groups as the legitimate representatives of the Syrian people, is seen by critics here and abroad as too little, too late. Yet as commentator and veteran ABC News foreign correspondent Barrie Dunsmore says, we should see Washington's great caution over involvement in the Syrian revolution as the new normal.

(Dunsmore) The Syrian civil war is about to end its second year and has so far cost about 40,000 lives. While both liberals and conservatives - for different reasons - have urged much greater American involvement, the United States has made a conscious effort to avoid being unwittingly dragged into a Syrian military intervention. And with good reason.

Perhaps Americans need reminding that the vast majority of the people fighting for change in the Middle East are Muslims - including very conservative ones. Moreover, in Syria the struggle is becoming not just for power but nover which branch of Islam - Shia or Sunni - is going to prevail. President Bashar Assad and his supporters are mainly Alawites - which isa Shiite offshoot. Most of Assad's opponents are Sunni's. There are Lebanese, Syrian and Armenian Christians, Kurds and Druze in the mix. But since the Iranian revolution of 1979, the historical Sunni-Shia enmity - exemplified today by Saudi Arabia and Iran - is the fault line of most of the region's civil conflicts.

President Barack Obama has repeatedly called for President Assad to step down. He has tacitly given his approval for states such as Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey to provide weapons for the rebels. And America has given the rebels non-lethal support such as communications equipment. But Obama hasn't wanted to supply heavy weapons to Islamic extremists who might one day turn those weapons against America's interests and allies. That is essentially what happened in Afghanistan in the 1980s when the U.S. armed Islamic freedom fighters to help drive out the Russians - only to have many of those same fighters, including Osama Bin Ladin himself, morph into al Qaeda.

It now turns out that the Nusra Front - the most aggressive and militarily successful rebels in Syria - are Sunni Muslim extremists trained and equipped by al Qaeda in Iraq. They're said to be the best fighters and as such they are popular with Sunni civilians and respected by their fellow rebels.

When the US followed France, Britain and Turkey in recognizing the Syrian Opposition coalition, it explicitly relegated the Nusra Front to the State Department's list of terrorist groups, along with some sketchy militias fighting on behalf of the Assad regime.

US recognition of the Syrian opposition was expected to be welcomed by the rebels, But according to early reports from Syria, American efforts to also isolate the Nusra Front have generated even more anti-American feeling among rebel groups generally. They were already frustrated with Washington because of its cautionary approach.

The reality is that the people of the Arab street blame the United States for its decades long coddling of Arab dictators - those recently overthrown or still with us.America has interests in the region and it still has some influence. But it does not have the absolute power to impose its will on complex conflicts - as we have vividly seen in Iraq and Afghanistan - and are seeing now in Syria, Libya and Egypt.

Barrie Dunsmore is a veteran diplomatic and foreign correspondent for ABC News, now living in Charlotte.
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