The Obama administration has firmly resisted calls for U.S. military intervention in Syria's civil unrest, but two senior officials on Thursday were hedging Washington's bets.
The administration, in public statements and private meetings, has stated a military mission in Syria is too fraught with uncertainties and risks.
Officials say adding more military firepower to the yearlong conflict would just make worse fighting the United Nations says has killed over 9,000. The White House and Pentagon say they are unsure just what factions make up opposition militias, and what kind of leader would follow Bashar al-Assad.
Yet, Pentagon brass made cryptic and opaque statements to a House committee about ongoing planning to establish humanitarian corridors and new efforts to protect civilians.
"We are reviewing and planning for a range of additional measures that may be necessary to protect the Syrian people," Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Thursday.
Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey said several times during testimony that the military is examining plans and would be ready if called upon by President Obama.
"Should we be called, our responsibility is clear: Provide the secretary of the defense and the president with options," Dempsey said.
"We are increasing pressure on the Assad regime every day," Panetta said. "Make no mistake--one way or another, this regime ultimately will meet its end." Later in the hearing, Panetta predicted in no uncertain terms that there is "little doubt" that Assad eventually "will be taken down."
But military analysts and lawmakers say a number of geopolitical and tactical challenges make it unclear exactly how the U.S. and its western and regional allies might turn such strong rhetoric into reality.
Add Panetta to the list of head-scratchers.
"There are legitimate questions about what steps are necessary to achieve this end," he told the House panel.
Assad and his still-loyal military reportedly continue to pound opposition forces, despite a cease-fire brokered by former U.N. chief Kofi Annan that went into effect earlier this month.
"Despite the Syrian government's claims to have pulled forces back from major urban centers, satellite imagery confirms that it has done little more than move new units into new offensive positions," says Steven Heydemann of the U.S. Institute of Peace.
"In Washington, at least, U.S. officials insist that the Annan plan has not derailed its policy toward Syria," says Heydemann. "There is, nonetheless, a growing conviction that it is helping the Assad regime to reconsolidate its authority."
The Obama administration and U.S. allies in the region have supplied opposition forces with humanitarian aid and some military hardware, such as satellite radios and other communications gear. But senior administration officials have said during public remarks and, sources say, in private sessions that they will not be providing rebel forces with weapons with which to fight Assad loyalists.
"We're not getting one ounce of an impression that that's going to be the case," says Muna Jondy, a Syrian opposition official, when asked if the White House is preparing to get involved. "There just isn't an appetite to get involved right now. And I don't think that's going to be changing."
Syrian opposition leaders should begin looking beyond the Annan-brokered peace plan, Heydemann says. The rebels have options, such as seeking more military hardware from regional and western nations, persuading Turkey to allow defensive NATO operations along its border with Syria, and "efforts to suppress Syrian air power," he says.
"All of these strategies are far more likely to be effective in pressuring the Assad regime," Heydemman says, "and in accelerating efforts to secure a negotiated political transition in Syria than the fatally flawed plan."