U.S. military intervention in Syria appears unlikely, with Obama administration officials and lawmakers worried about spurring a bloody civil war and assisting al Qaeda.
National security officials are still trying to untangle a thick web of political, strategic, and religious issues--including some that span centuries--as regime forces and opposition fighters continue to clash. With over 7,500 people dead there, a senior State Department official Thursday said "conditions in affected areas of Syria are dire and worsening."
As forces loyal to embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad continue using artillery and tanks to pound rebel targets and allegedly even civilians, some hawkish Republicans and Syrian opposition officials have called for U.S. military action.
But Obama administration officials have--so far, at least--closed the door to that option.
"At this point, we do not believe that the further militarization of the situation is the best course," senior State Department officials said Thursday.
Obama and his foreign policy aides say Assad must be removed from or give up power. But the administration also is sounding an ever-louder drumbeat that Syria is much different--and more ethnically and politically complicated--than Libya, where Obama opted to use U.S. air and naval power to help rebels drive Muammar Qadhafi from power.
"It is not clear to us whether arming [rebel forces] would actually save lives or help topple Bashar Assad," Jeffrey Feltman, assistant secretary of state for near eastern affairs, told a Senate panel. Asked about reports that Saudia Arabia and other Sunni Arab nations already are arming Syrian opposition fighters, Feltman shot back: "I don't think the Saudis ... are talking about giving them tanks."
There also suddenly is, for Washington, a very familiar elephant in the room, one about which lawmakers are openly concerned. Sen. Tom Udall, a New Mexico Democrat, is concerned that should Washington or its allies in the region begin arms shipments to the rebels, such a move might "lead to the empowerment of al Qaeda or Hamas."
Feltman told U.S. News & World Report those kinds of worries are "premature" because "first we would have to decide to move in that direction," a decision the administration so far has ruled out.
But when pressed, Feltman said the administration is mulling "how to ensure the people we want to use the weapons are the ones getting the weapons."
U.S. officials and lawmakers are increasingly alarmed about al Qaeda's opportunism. Officials and lawmakers say the Sunni-based terrorist group (as well as Hamas) has aligned with opposition forces in a move against Assad and his regime of largely Alawi Muslims.
"Al Qaeda, through its affiliate in Iraq, is apparently becoming involved," Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat, said during a Thursday hearing.
While administration officials are less vocal about al Qaeda's presence and role in the Syria conflict, it's clearly on their radar. Feltman and Robert Ford, Washington's ambassador to Syria, told the panel in written remarks that "sophisticated al Qeada-style bomb and suicide vest attacks in Damascus and Aleppo are ... alarming."
The State Department has concluded "al Qeada has little political influence in Syria so far," the officials wrote, adding the unrest "remains essentially an organic, home-grown revolution."
Obama administration officials have in public comments this week attempted to cast the Syrian opposition forces as unorganized--in some cases not even communicating about battlefield actions--but working toward common goals.
But Sen. Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican, reported intelligence officials provided a different sketch of the Syrian conflict during a classified session Wednesday. During that closed-door briefing, intel officials concluded the opposition is not fighting for democracy, casting the conflict as "the Sunnis wanting dominance over the other groups," mostly Assad's ruling Alawites, Corker said during the hearing.