Syria endgame: U.S. can't get sucked into another sectarian war

The defection of Syrian Prime Minister Riyad Hijab this week is the latest blow to President Bashir Assad's increasingly desperate struggle to remain in office. Mr. Hijab was the highest-ranking Sunni member of the government, which is dominated by Mr. Assad's minority Alawite sect, as well as the highest-ranking government official to renounce his position so far. While the departure is not expected to cause the government to collapse, it does signal a weakening of the Sunni majority's loyalty to Assad regime.

Mr. Hijab was forced to take the job virtually at gunpoint in June, largely in order to buttress Mr. Assad's claim to represent all of Syria's ethnic and religious groups. Yet the former prime minister was a reluctant collaborator from the start, and he was never a member of Mr. Assad's inner circle. With his escape across the Jordanian border under cover of darkness Monday, Mr. Hijab joined a growing number of Syrian political and military officials who have joined the opposition.

Meanwhile, Syria sinks deeper into chaos and civil war. Over the weekend, Mr. Assad escalated attacks on opposition fighters in neighborhoods in the capital, Damascus, and in Allepo, Syria's second largest city and commercial hub. Both areas until now had been largely spared the worst of the fighting. That Mr. Assad has now called in jet aircraft and attack helicopters to pound rebel strongholds in populated areas shows that his has no qualms about killing as many of his own people as necessary to stay in power.

The fighting has precipitated a flood of refugees caught in the crossfire as they seek to flee into neighboring countries. Opposition groups claim the civilian death toll is now more than 20,000. Those who manage to cross into Turkey or Jordan find themselves crowded into sprawling refugee camps where their growing numbers represent a humanitarian disaster in the making.

The U.S. is working with Turkey and Jordan to provide medical supplies and other relief assistance, but it has shied away from direct involvement in providing the rebels with arms and munitions. That issue is being handled by Turkey and the Gulf Arab states, mainly Saudi Arabia and Qatar. For a variety of diplomatic and political considerations, this is not a conflict the U.S. should want its fingerprints all over. Though the Obama administration insists Mr. Assad's days are numbered, the U.S. must avoid rushing into another Mideast conflict unless there's a compelling reason for intervention, such as the possibility Mr. Assad might lose control over his chemical weapons stocks or decide to use them against his opponents. This is not like Libya, where a fairly cohesive group of rebels was confronting the regime in a conventional military conflict with discernible battles and fronts. In Syria, the fighting is as diffuse as the rebel groups and their motivations.

Given the unpredictable course of the conflict, the U.S. needs to start planning now for what comes after Mr. Assad has departed the scene, and there are some indications that it is doing so. The worst-case scenario would be a collapse into anarchy as former allies among the opposition turn on each other. That's essentially what happened in Afghanistan after the Soviets departed, and more recently in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein. Both those civil conflicts claimed more lives than did the wars that preceded them, and we would be well advised not to get in the middle of something like that again.

Our goal should be maintaining basic health and municipal services, restarting the economy and avoiding a dangerous power vacuum that could open the door to sectarian strife. And the U.S. should help the new government repatriate the thousands of refugees driven out of the country by Mr. Assad's brutality.

Ultimately, it will be up to the Syrians to decide what kind of country they want for themselves and their children. The U.S. and its partners in the region should be ready to help by being ready to offer whatever assistance they can.