There is no doubt that the Assad government has in fact murdered not hundreds, not thousands, but tens of thousands of its opposition. The means by which these particular killings have taken place, the use of poison gas, is the stated rationale for our intervention on the side of the "opposition." There are also proposals lurking in the background for arming these "rebels," in order to enhance their opportunity to overthrow the Assad administration.
All of this argument has a familiar "good guy/bad guy" flavor. We Americans tend to favor the underdog, especially when all of the ugly facts are not under consideration. For example, how many of the hundred thousand or so souls who have lost their lives have been at the hands of the government and how many at the hands of the opposition? We don't really know. What we do know, but is not generally commented upon, is that this is really, fundamentally, a religious war. An internecine struggle between the two branches of Islam: the Shiites and the Sunnis. To be totally correct, the Assad regime adheres to the Alawite Shiite sect. And in fact, the Alawites may be the most potent military force Assad has at his disposal.

Now consider the opposition. It is a mix of Sunni extremists operating under a number of flags. Most familiar of these to us is Al Qaeda; you know, the folks responsible for 9/11. But there are other Sunni jihadists in their ranks as well; no need to enumerate them. The point is these "rebels" are as anti-Western a bunch of terrorists as you will find on the globe. They, as much as their Shiite opponents, hate Western civilization far more than they do each other. Each side would like to be the side that finally exterminates the Great Satan and its annoying ally, Israel.
Take a look at the list of countries who support the president's proposed action: most Arab countries in the region, all 90 percent or more Sunni. No one else. Then consider the countries who oppose this action. All of our Western allies.
Does anyone really think that arming the Sunni rebels will suddenly make these Islamist extremists our friends? Or that leveling the playing field will bring a halt to the fighting? That suddenly democracy will emerge and America will be considered the Savior?
We stayed out of the conflict between Iraq and Iran in the 1980s, and wisely so. Weaponry we give to one side or the other often ends up being used against us, Afghanistan being the most recent example.
As much as it is appealing to take action against a brutal government that gasses some of its own population, we must first consider the repercussions both to us and our allies, our true allies. This is one fight we should stay out of, appealing though it may be to some on the far right and left.

Winnick is a Middle East scholar of over 40 years, author of 'East Wind,' a novel of nuclear terrorism. His second novel, 'Devil Among Us,' will appear this November.