Top U.S. officials' rationale for avoiding direct intervention in the two-year-old Syrian revolution is precisely why they need to get involved immediately, experts say.
The nation's top diplomatic and military officials testified on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, with top diplomat John Kerry, Pentagon chief Chuck Hagel and Joint Chiefs Chairman Martin Dempsey discussing new efforts to assist the overthrow of Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad. But the top national security policymakers also warned that the situation has grown dangerously complicated.
Those familiar with the on-the-ground sentiment say those efforts are falling on deaf ears, and a serious response would require more than long-range assistance before it's too late.
"The situation is evolving rapidly," says Radwan Ziadeh, a member of the Syrian National Council and director of the DC-based Syrian Center for Political and Strategic Studies. "The U.S. policy [should] make a shift quickly to make more actions, rather than just watching and monitoring what's happening on the ground."
America's existing efforts to supply non-lethal aid to the fighters and Syrian aid groups "has nothing to do with protecting the Syrians being killed systematically by the Syrian mafia and the Air Force," he says.
He pointed to Dempsey's warning Wednesday that opposition fighters count among their ranks increasingly more radical Islamists. Dempsey agreed with directly arming the opposition a year ago, but now balks at the proposition.
"It's actually more confusing on the opposition side today than it was six months ago," Dempsey told the Senate Armed Services Committee, adding that the U.S. could not longer "could clearly identify the right people" among the rebel fighters.
Ziadeh says the presence of "al-Qaieda and the rise of Islamists" will be "a real challenge in front of the Syrians and U.S. policy."
But opposition leaders in Syria say the longer the U.S. waits to get more directly involved, the more radical groups will fill the vacuum.
"We've been predicting that," says Louay Sakka, with the Syrian Support Group. "The same argument [Depmsey] is using can be used against him: You can never make things better if you don't get involved."
Hagel announced Wednesday he was ordering a new military headquarters unit of roughly 200 troops into Amman, Jordan, to help contain Syria's chemical weapons stockpiles. This does little to assure the Syrians, Sakka says, as the Jordanian border on the south side of the country lies over 300 miles away from the northerly Syrian city of Aleppo. That bastion of the rebellion made headlines almost exactly a month ago when reports circulated that the Assad regime had used chemical weapons there.
President Barack Obama had made assurances that the use of chemical weapons would cross "a red line" and lead to unnamed consequences. So far, the only response the Syrians have witnessed is a U.N. investigative team that was blocked from the purported chemical weapons target.
"Everyone knows the U.S. is not serious," says Ziadeh. "The Assad regime uses [weapons] in larger scales, and they know there will be no response."
"The U.S. is in a very, very weak position. They have done nothing, except watching and counting the casualties like we do."
Sakka says the U.S. must take an active role at least in helping to organize the military response, such as committing military advisors to the opposition's Supreme Military Council.
"It has a symbolic side which plays on psychological warfare," he says. "I'm talking about more than symbolic. I'm talking about actual coordination."
"The U.S has to take action by targeted air strikes," says Ziadeh. "Or [enforcing] a safety zone, or anything that will affect the civilians."
The Syrian's image of the U.S. is damaged, he said, but there is still a chance to regain control of the country if the U.S. seeks to lead an international coalition.