(WikiMedia Commons)

(WikiMedia Commons)

In the bloody Syrian civil war, civilians have paid a heavy price. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition group, reported in May that at least 94,000 people have been killed throughout the two years of clashes. (The “conservative” estimate offered by the president of the UN General Assembly in May was at least 80,000 dead.) However, the Observatory thinks the figure may be as high as 120,000.

120,000. It’s hard to grasp the magnitude of that figure, and how many men, women and children have been killed; how many families have been torn apart.

What began as non-violent demonstrations against the four-decade reign of the Assad family metastasized into a civil war, setting the Sunni majority as rivals against minorities, chiefly the Alawites, the sect to which the Assads belong.

President Bashar Assad, who heads the regime that is murdering its own people, is a special kind of madman. His army, backed by Iran and its terrorist militia, the Lebanese Hezbollah, has essentially been slaughtering its citizens, ruthlessly flattening swathes of rebellious regions with tanks, mortars, rockets and sharpshooters. While Assad denies it, he is strongly suspected of – and confirmed by the UK and France to be – crossing what the US has characterized as a “red line,” using chemical weapons such as nerve gas against his people.

In Assad’s Syria, ambulances and paramedics cannot approach the dead and injured to offer help because they will be shot at as well. Moreover, many of the injured are fearful of going to hospitals, since the regime’s soldiers often storm them, gunning down patients and even the medical staff.

There are even reports that families have been struggling to bury their dead relatives, as Syrian troops have been known to shoot at crowds of mourners at funerals.

Having seized the town of Qusair near the Lebanese border last week, Assad’s forces are said to be poised for an assault on the crucial city of Homs, which could sever the armed opposition’s connection with Syria’s south.

US President Barack Obama’s administration is close to a decision this week on approving aid for the besieged rebels (while evaluating a less likely move to dispatch US air power to put a no-fly zone into effect over the country).

The strategy of arming the rebels would seem to be a wise one, both from the political worldview of bringing order to a war-torn country, and from the human perspective of deposing a bloodthirsty despot and bringing a halt to the killing to scores of civilians.

However, there is another wrinkle. Al-Qaeda – yes, those notorious terrorists waging jihad on the world – are now in Syria, in an effort to unite with the rebels and bring down Assad. This has caused alarm over which groups within the rebel alliance will rise to the top to lead the country, should Assad go down.

Indeed, the war came closer to Israel’s door last week, as Syrian rebels were reported to have temporarily captured the only border crossing between Syria and Israel on the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights. This as al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri released a communication exhorting the rebels to fight for an Islamist state in Syria that could then declare all-out war on Israel.

Some have said that the presence of al-Qaeda merged with the rebels reminds them of the recent state of affairs in Libya, in which the opposition, guided and outfitted by NATO, was comprised of a sinister jumble of Islamists, one-time followers of the regime and al-Qaeda guerrillas. It’s hard to know what the right thing is to do in this situation.

Obama is said to be leaning toward sending weapons to the rebels – only to vetted, moderate rebel units. But should those rebels become stronger, how much will that strengthen al-Qaeda? What will be the true price of aiding the opposition? What will come out of the chaos, should the rebels bring down Assad – will Israel have another Islamist nation on its border?

At the same time, how can the Western, “civilized” world sit back and allow a government to butcher its citizens?

What a conundrum.