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While Syria’s minority Christian population also might align with the Alawites, the most powerful opposition forces are now split between nation’s large Arab and Kurdish populations, both of which are Sunni Muslim.

The question of how openly and aggressively the U.S. ought to support those forces is one where Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney appear to disagree.

Mr. Romney has said outright “the United States should work with partners to organize and arm Syrian opposition groups,” and campaign advisers assert that a Romney White House would take a more aggressive leadership role in the process.

While the Obama administration has argued publicly for months against arming the opposition, reports suggest that the White House and CIA are collaborating closely with Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, which are secretly channeling weapons to rebels in Syria.

Apart from vaguely worded assertions, though, the administration has remained mum on such activities. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton instead said only that the U.S. is “coordinating our efforts with others who are also providing various forms of support.”

Such remarks feed the perception that the U.S. is letting others set its Syria policy, including regimes that support radical Islamist forces.

“One of the problems of leading from behind is that you get stuck with the agenda of those who are in front of you,” Mr. Rubin said. “And whether it’s in Egypt, Libya or Syria, the Saudis and Qataris tend to support the more extreme elements.

“If the Qataris and the Saudis are arming the Muslim Brotherhood, then basically what we’re doing is telling any more liberal or nationalist elements in Syria to get bent.”

Obama’s fears

At the same time, the administration fears that providing direct aid to rebels could mean military equipment ends up in the hands of truly unsavory groups.

Mrs. Clinton made reference to such concerns Monday during a visit to Turkey, where unease is mounting over the activities in Syria of the Kurdish Workers’ Party — also known as the PKK — which the United States, Turkey, the European Union and NATO list as a terrorist organization.

“We worry about terrorists, PKK, al Qaeda and others taking advantage of the legitimate fight of the Syrian people for their freedom to use Syria and to promote their own agendas, and even to perhaps find footholds to launch attacks against others,” Mrs. Clinton said.

The Romney campaign says those fears are a poor excuse to avoid leadership and argues that the presence of Islamists and terrorists in the anti-Assad coalition is exactly why the U.S. must try to boost other actors.

“Complaining that there happen to be bad actors in the opposition is not an excuse for why we’re not helping the good actors,” said Dan Senor, a Romney campaign adviser and adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

“We have basically been sitting on our hands for a long time waiting for the opposition to get better organized. The administration has come up with excuse after excuse all while more blood has been shed and Assad is still in power,” he said.

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