Even a limited expansion of the minimal U.S. role is unlikely for the next several months and perhaps beyond, according to American and foreign officials.
“We could get dragged into this, no question, but we’re just not there yet,” said one of several senior U.S. officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the complicated internal and diplomatic debates over Syria.
U.S. and other Western officials still predict that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad will eventually fall, but they said the 18-month-old conflict appears to be settling into a long war of attrition.
Against that bleak assessment, the Obama administration is resisting scattered calls in Europe and from the Free Syrian Army rebels to provide weapons and to establish an internationally protected humanitarian corridor or a buffer zone for displaced Syrians inside their country.
“The bottom line is that [such protected areas] would necessitate a no-fly zone,” a second administration official said. No humanitarian organization would enter Syria without guaranteed protection from air attacks and, the official said, “that would require taking out Syrian air defenses. This is a very slippery slope.”
This official and others insisted that all possibilities, including military intervention, remain on the table. “There’s not a thing . . . that we aren’t hotly debating,” he said. “There’s nothing that we haven’t turned up and down, looked at and scrubbed. We want to do more. But we’re putting that against what would be effective and in our interests.”
The rebels have taken territory and shown increasing military skill. But they are still no match for the heavy weapons of the Assad regime, and they are pleading for outside help.
In an interview broadcast Wednesday, Assad acknowledged the expanding scope of the war but predicted victory.
“We are fighting a regional and global war, so time is needed to win it,” he said on the pro-regime private TV station Dunya. “We are moving forward. The situation is practically better, but it has not been decided yet. That takes time.”
Variables for the U.S.
The administration, officials said, thinks that the rebels have made steady progress, using weapons taken from Syrian government forces and those provided and paid for by Persian Gulf states. But U.S. officials worry that any weapons given to shoot down Syrian planes or attack government tanks might fall into the hands of extremists within a rebel movement that has yet to unify around a workable and democratic plan for a transition after Assad’s fall.
“We worry that there is a higher degree of radical Islamist penetration in Syria, and we don’t want weapons falling into the wrong hands later,” said a third senior administration official involved in the planning for a post-Assad Syria.