Secretary of State John Kerry and other senior administration officials have begun arguing for President Obama to consider further military options in Syria, including sending U.S. military personnel into the region to train rebel forces, according to officials involved in the debate.
While Obama remains reluctant to intervene in the civil war, his advisers' shifting position reflects the palpable increase in pressure felt by the White House after the breakdown in peace talks in Geneva. It also signals a growing sense among senior officials that the conflict is no longer simply a humanitarian problem but a regional crisis that could tarnish the president's legacy and U.S. prestige.
Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, and other principals submitted lists of options to Obama last week, but those appeared to preclude any course that would involve "boots on the ground."
"Among the proposals for consideration was overt military training of rebels — not involvement in any way," says a senior administration official. If adopted, such training programs would represent a step up from the covert training already being done by the CIA in Jordan.
Nonetheless, obstacles abound, not least of which is Obama's continued insistence that no U.S. personnel be involved on the ground.
Adding to the hurdles is fresh infighting within the Western-backed Free Syrian Army. The rebellion's planned "spring offensive" was thrown into chaos after commanders criticized a decision by the Supreme Military Council coordinating body to fire the army's allegedly ineffectual leader.
These fissures have strengthened Obama's conviction that the United States can do little to affect the eventual outcome and that changes to policy should be incremental and remain cautious, so as to keep America from getting dragged into the war, according to senior administration officials. As a result, it is unlikely that the options that Obama is now considering will substantially alter the situation on the ground.
"The rebel chaos and fragmentation has reached such a point that no strategist worth his salt, I think, believes the Obama administration can find glory in trying to arm up these guys," says Joshua Landis, a Syria expert at the University of Oklahoma.
Even so, the administration wants to be more involved, if only to try to guide and restrain the efforts of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and other countries that have pressed Obama to supply the rebels with heavier weapons, including shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles. That could have an effect similar to what U.S. aid did in Afghanistan a generation ago against the Soviet air force by supplying Stinger missiles to the mujahadeen.
Among those countries, serious discussions are now focused on supplying arms that would allow the Syrian rebels to neutralize Assad's air force — as long as the weapons are secured with teams of advisers so that militants from the powerful al-Nusra Front, an al-Qaida affiliate, another group calling itself the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and other extremists don't get hold of them. A conclave of intelligence chiefs from those and other countries discussed these options at a meeting in Washington earlier this month.
Administration officials say they still oppose that policy, first because the weapons might ultimately land in the hands of Islamist groups but second because they would require training and monitoring by U.S. personnel on the ground.
Ironically, according to one official involved in the discussions, the new debate over these relatively meager military options sometimes pits White House officials who are more pro-intervention against Pentagon officials who are being more cautious. That marks an apparent turnaround from a year ago, when then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Joint Chiefs Chairman Martin Dempsey both testified to Congress that they had supported supplying arms to the rebels while the White House stood firmly against that policy, fearing that any involvement militarily would be a political loser for the president with polls showing that Americans overwhelming opposed intervention.
Kerry, in particular, has grown frustrated over the lack of U.S. action. He has suggested that the Geneva peace talks can succeed only if setbacks on the ground force Damascus back into negotiations, and that can happen only if the nations supporting the rebels adequately counter the assistance that Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad is getting from Russia and Iran. "It is very clear that Bashar al-Assad is continuing to try to win this in the battlefield rather than to come to the negotiating table in good faith," Kerry said.
A senior Western diplomat said that "there is a bigger and bigger awareness, especially around Secretary Kerry, that in fact we are facing a global failure on Syria."
Light weapons are now being supplied to the rebels, but a year ago a CIA assessment concluded that those would not be enough to tip the balance of the conflict. U.S. and Israeli officials fear delivering anything larger or more lethal, such as anti-tank or surface-to-air missiles that be used against U.S., Israeli or commercial targets.
Obama himself has changed the tone of his public comments about Syria, appearing to open the door slightly more to a military option. "Right now we don't think that there is a military solution, per se, to the problem," Obama said two weeks ago at a joint press conference with French President Francois Hollande. "But the situation is fluid, and we are continuing to explore every possible avenue to solve this problem."
Still, Assad's staying power and the lack of a credible unity among his opposition suggest little will change in Syria without a larger-scale commitment than Obama is ready to make.