In case you were wondering whether anything’s changed since the NYT reported in April that “Nowhere in rebel-controlled Syria is there a secular fighting force to speak of,” the answer is no, nothing’s really changed. In fact, from the sound of this Reuters piece, there may be fewer moderates now than there were then.

Omar’s group, Ghurabaa al-Sham, wasn’t defeated by the government. It was dismantled by a rival band of revolutionaries – hardline Islamists.

The Islamists moved against them at the beginning of May. After three days of sporadic clashes Omar’s more moderate fighters, accused by the Islamists of looting, caved in and dispersed, according to local residents. Omar said the end came swiftly…

It’s a pattern repeated elsewhere in the country. During a 10-day journey through rebel-held territory in Syria, Reuters journalists found that radical Islamist units are sidelining more moderate groups that do not share the Islamists’ goal of establishing a supreme religious leadership in the country…

Many [moderates] pledge allegiance to the notion of a unified Free Syrian Army (FSA). But on the ground there is little evidence to suggest the FSA actually exists as a body at all.

The Free Syrian Army is the group led by Gen. Idris, whom McCain’s been touting as our man in Syria. As of two days ago, Idris still hadn’t heard from the White House or the Pentagon about the weapons we’re supposedly going to send them. Then again, if the FSA right now is more of a rhetorical construct than an actual fighting force, maybe the White House is planning to pull together its own homegrown units on the ground over there and call that the FSA. Either way, what are the odds that the FSA, however constituted, is going to take down Assad while simultaneously fending off tens of thousands of predatory Islamist who are supposed to be on their side?

The Reuters story at the link up top is long but worth your time as a snapshot of what the Pentagon’s up against in trying to somehow vindicate American prestige in this clusterfark. The dynamic described there will be a familiar one to you: The “moderate” rebel ranks, such as they are, are apparently crawling with thieves and looters, which makes the locals amenable to being ruled by less overtly corrupt jihadist militias instead. That’s the story of the entire Middle East in microcosm, including/especially in Egypt. Two obvious points to all this, then. One: The fact that the U.S. has spent months making noise about finally aiding the “moderate” rebels surely must have encouraged the jihadis to purge them, right? If you know that an enemy hyperpower’s about to start arming your chief rivals for control of the insurrection, then your next move is obvious. Eliminate as many of those rivals as you can in order to maximize your advantage. Makes me wonder if part of the reason Assad’s been so successful on the ground lately is because his jihadi enemies were momentarily preoccupied with weakening elements of the rebellion themselves.

Two: If the jihadis are intent on isolating and purging the moderates, what exactly is the strategy for getting them to fight in concert against Assad? The assumption thus far has been, I guess, that once U.S.-armed units start to put a hurt on the regime, the jihadis will leave them alone and will try to multiply the effect by focusing on the regime themselves. But in light of this story, maybe that’s naive. Maybe the jihadis will launch a two-front war, one against Assad and one against the proxy army of their western archenemy, which in turn will make things easier for Assad’s forces by letting them fight a divided enemy. That would be the exact opposite of what the U.S. is out to do here, i.e. help the rebels beat up on the regime and drag out the war until Assad sues for peace. Even in a best-case scenario, in which the CIA somehow builds a small moderate force and turns it into an effective army, what’s the plan for the obviously inevitable civil war after the Assad falls between the U.S.-backed Sunni moderates and the Sunni jihadis? You’re going to have to fight and kill them too, apparently, or else they’ll fight and kill you. That means committing to years of supplying one side here, and maybe doing more than that if/when things don’t go their way. How long, roughly, is all of this going to take?