But U.S. hesitation has frustrated some of Washington’s closest European and Middle Eastern friends, who say that the time for debate is fast running out. More than 70,000 Syrians have been killed and millions have fled their homes. The raging conflict has begun to spill over Syria’s borders, and no negotiated end is in sight.
“We’re at the point where we have to show some real progress,” said a senior official from a Middle Eastern government that actively supports the Syrian rebels. Sophisticated weapons that could help break a months-long military stalemate in and around Damascus and consolidate rebel gains in other parts of the country, he said, could finally persuade regime supporters to break with Assad and hasten his downfall.
Beginning last fall, “everyone was waiting for a new administration, then a new cabinet” in Washington to formulate and lead a new joint strategy, the official said. If Assad and his military now “see business as usual, then he could survive,” the official said.
Anti-Assad governments in the region, including Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar, are privately acerbic in their assessment of U.S. dithering. The Europeans express more understanding, even as they question whether the Obama doctrine of close coordination on issues of shared foreign policy concern is viable if the United States declines to participate.
“It slightly undermines the model” established with the military intervention in Libya, a senior European official said. There, President Obama took credit for organizing and supporting a strategy implemented along with European and Persian Gulf partners.
“We would hope the Americans would join us” on Syria, the official said.
Officials from several European and Middle Eastern governments agreed to discuss Syria policy only if they were not identified by name or country to avoid antagonizing the United States.
Last week, Britain and France broke away from what had been a cautious united front with the Obama administration on Syria.
At a European Union meeting in Brussels on Friday, France called for an end to an E.U. arms embargo that has prevented weapons shipments to the Syrian rebels and indicated it was prepared to act on its own if others disagreed. The rebel coalition “needs to have the means to defend the areas that have been liberated,” French President Francois Hollande said.
British Prime Minister David Cameron backed the call to end the embargo and appeared to directly address U.S. concerns in a Brussels news conference.
“I think it’s worth taking on for a moment the two arguments that the opponents of change make. The first is that what is required in Syria is a political solution, not a military solution. Well, of course people want a political solution . . . but this is not an either-or situation,” Cameron said, adding that political progress was more likely if democratic opposition forces were seen as growing stronger.