This handy graphic from the Economist illustrates the problem:
For Western governments pondering whether to arm them, Jabhat al-Nusra (Victory Front) is the biggest worry. Its global jihadist ideology justifies violence to bring about a nation where all Muslims unite. It enjoys murky sources of private funding, including regular payments from al-Qaeda in Iraq. Ahrar al-Sham has more local aims, but its comrades are also vehemently Islamist. Other umbrella groups, such as Liwa al-Tawhid in Aleppo, Syria’s embattled second city, are harder to classify, in part because they serve as franchises or bring together smaller groups with a range of ideas. The Farouq Battalions, whose territorial reach goes from Homs to Hasaka in the north-east, is another mixed bag, ranging from Islamists to people with no particular ideology. The Supreme Military Command, led by General Salim Idriss, a Sunni defector from President Assad’s army, includes some able commanders but still lacks the cash and arms to match either the regime’s forces or Jabhat al-Nusra, which ignores the military command. Ominously, rebels from more secular-minded or more moderately Islamist groups speak openly of a second war to come—against Jabhat al-Nusra.
Thankfully, some commentators previously itching for another US entry into a Middle East sectarian conflict have taken note of this and have relaxed their positions. Yeah, I’m looking at you Jeffrey Goldberg:
Early intervention — a coherent, active attempt by the U.S. and its allies to build up, finance and advise what was then a moderate opposition — might have worked. Now, though, the Assad regime is showing signs of real resilience, and the opposition is showing signs of real brutality. It is easy to blame Obama for his early passivity. It is slightly harder to blame him for looking at Syria as it is today and then choosing to ignore calls for deeper intervention on the side of the rebels.
While I don’t even agree that early intervention would have worked, i’ll nonetheless accept his mea culpa and not be too picky about it. I’ve said it before, there are no good options when it comes to Syria, but non-intervention is the best of those bad ideas.