Third, the United States and others should immediately establish security assistance relationships with this new government, providing arms and training. While Washington should simultaneously support the efforts of U.N.-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi to arrange a managed transition -- one in which Assad and company would step aside voluntarily -- it would be foolish to bet on the doctor's willingness to do, at long last, the right thing.
Although the administration has so far resisted arming the opposition, arms are now the coin of the realm for anyone wishing to influence the course of Syria's future. The United States and its allies -- most notably Turkey -- must dominate the logistics of external arms transfers, ensuring that weapons go to those advocating a non-sectarian, decent political system for Syria and are denied to those seeking a sectarian outcome.
Underlying all of these efforts should be systematic public and private outreach by the Syrian opposition and those supporting it to Syrian minorities. Millions of Syrians still tolerate the presence of the Assad regime, notwithstanding its incompetence, corruption and brutality. These regime's failings are known to all -- to the Alawite community, which remains Syria's poorest and from which the Assad clan has seceded both socially and economically; and to the Christian community, which still sends many of its sons and daughters to the democracies of the world.
Yet these minority communities fear what may follow the devil they know. To date, the armed opposition has largely avoided replying in kind to the regime's atrocities. Yet with al Qaeda in Iraq now operating in Syria under the guise of Jabhat al-Nusra, can it honestly be said that minority fears are ridiculous?
The negative reaction of the mainstream Syrian opposition to the U.S. designation of Jabhat al-Nusra as a terrorist organization is understandable. When you're fighting for your life against a vicious, unprincipled enemy, you take help wherever it can be found. And while the timing of the designation was amateurishly lamentable -- unnecesarrily neutralizing the impact of U.S. recognition of the Syrian Opposition Council -- it still sent an important message to the minorities held hostage by Assad: No matter what happens, the United States will neither support nor tolerate the substitution of one form of tyranny for another in Syria.
If the mainstream opposition does not now understand the threat posed to Syria by Jabhat al-Nusra, it will learn the hard truth once the regime has fallen. In post-Assad Syria, the al Qaeda murderers embedded in the organization will not ride off into the sunset like Yul Brynner and the Magnificent Seven. They will want to stay to practice their bloody trade.
Syria's suffering will likely continue. The departure of Assad will not be the end of the story. But the beginning of the end must entail an alternative to the regime, one enjoying the full support of the international community. And this alternative must make it clear to all Syrians that, in the new Syria, citizenship and citizenship alone will trump sect, ethnicity, gender, and all other categories used to divide the country. Time is the enemy. Time is of the essence. Time, for Syria and its neighbors, is running out.