A Free Syrian Army fighter points his weapon as he...

A Free Syrian Army fighter points his weapon as he watches a Syrian Army jet in Fafeen village, north of Aleppo province, Syria. (Dec. 11, 2012) Credit: AP

Syria is fast becoming the new Somalia -- a nation whose central government wields little control over the bulk of the country while feuding sects and gangs fight each other as well as the thoroughly discredited president, Bashar al-Assad.

Meanwhile, just as in Somalia, vast numbers of Syrians are suffering and dying.

The United Nations says more than 70,000 Syrians have been killed since the conflict began almost two years ago. At least 2 million people are now homeless, in many cases because their homes have been destroyed. Typhoid and hepatitis are ripping through the country, and for most people health care is not readily available. At least 1 million Syrians have no reliable source of food.

As many as 2 million Syrians remain imprisoned in regime jails. Another 800,000 are refugees in neighboring states, the U.N. says, and others are fleeing at a rate of about 5,000 every day. In squalid Jordanian, Turkish and Lebanese refugee camps, many have little access to food, shelter or clean water -- leading to a full-blown humanitarian crisis, the U.N. warns.

Exacerbating this disaster, Iran is sending militias into Syria to fight for Assad, and so is Hezbollah, the Iran surrogate based in Lebanon. Meantime, al-Nusra, al-Qaeda's Syrian franchise, is fighting against Assad -- while attacking other rebel groups.

Last week, Syrian rebels threatened to attack Hezbollah -- in Syria and Lebanon. A few days earlier, Hezbollah fighters killed several rebels operating near the Lebanon border. All of these groups are already vying to seize power when the Assad regime inevitably falls.

"The country is breaking up before our eyes," Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N. special representative for Syria, told the Security Council.

As the nation disintegrates and threatens to fall into malign hands, the United States, Europe and NATO continue doing almost nothing -- although late this week the U.S. did offer the Syrian rebels $60 million in aid and additional non-lethal assistance.

Still, Syria remains a baffling conundrum for the West. Look at the intra-administration conflict exposed during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing in early February. The CIA director, secretaries of state and defense along with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff all said they'd advised President Obama that the time had come to arm and train the Syrian rebels.

Obama refused. And he was correct. With all those rival factions in Syria, who knows where those weapons would go? Consider what happened to all of Libya's weapons after Muammar Qaddafi's government fell. In mid-February, Egyptian security officers seized two tons of explosives on the way to Gaza through Sinai. The materiel was Libyan. The Islamic extremists who took over northern Mali are also using Libyan weapons.

"The flow of weapons from Libya has armed terrorists in the region" and is "empowering al-Qaeda," said Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, just after a trip to the region in February.

The American officials who advocated arming the rebels also suggested training a cadre of fighters. Look how well that's working in Afghanistan, where scores of American and allied forces have been killed by the fighters they were training. Will we be better able to detect extremists who infiltrate the training operation in Syria than we are in Afghanistan? I doubt it.

So what can the West do? Sit by and watch as al-Qaeda, Hezbollah or Iran take over Syria?

Israel demonstrated one possibility. It bombed a weapons shipment and military research facility. Israel lost no planes and paid no price. Why couldn't NATO forces take on targeted attacks like that to hasten Assad's fall from power? (A transitional government and U.N. peacekeeping force would have to be ready, waiting.)

Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican, is calling for using cruise missiles to destroy Syrian aircraft on runways (a suggestion I made in a column last June).

Any sort of military action would, of course, infuriate Russia. So what?

A few days ago, Sergey Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, intoned: "Neither side can allow itself to bet on a military settlement, as this is a path to nowhere, a path to mutual destruction." So, Mr. Lavrov, stop sending vast quantities of military hardware to Assad and blocking every Security Council effort intended to bring the conflict to an end.

With the exception of Russia and Iran, the world has reached a broad consensus that, whatever happens, Assad must go. In fact, Navi Pillay, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, called for a war-crimes investigation of Assad because he's committing "crimes against humanity."

In her view, in fact, Assad should be sent directly to the International Criminal Court.

Joel Brinkley is the Hearst professional in residence at Stanford University and a Pulitzer Prize-winning former correspondent for The New York Times.