WASHINGTON -- Despite a lack of conclusive evidence, the U.S. intelligence assessments that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale intensified pressure Thursday on President Barack Obama to give more help to rebels fighting President Bashar Assad.
But he confronts no easy choices and all are fraught with risk, experts said.
“This is a case where there is nothing but bad options,” said Anthony Cordesman, an expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
One overriding consideration: Anything the United States does to weaken the Assad regime could aid Islamist groups that have emerged as the most effective fighting forces of the divided and poorly organized Syrian opposition. Those groups include Jabat al Nusra, or the Nusra Front, a branch of al Qaida in Iraq, that has been joined by foreign jihadists and seeks to impose Taliban-style Islamic rule on Syria.
Moreover, Americans are weary of foreign entanglements after the more than eight-year U.S. occupation of Iraq and the 12-year war in Afghanistan, the longest in the country’s history. Even among the most ardent proponents of greater U.S. help for the Syrian opposition, there is no support for sending in U.S. troops.
Still, Democrats joined Republicans on Capitol Hill in decrying the inconclusive U.S. intelligence assessments of small-scale chemical weapons use by the regime as evidence that Assad has crossed a “red line.” Many urged Obama to act, but few spelled out specific steps.
“It’s time that he (Obama) come forward with a plan that will help stem the violence and demonstrate to Assad that his barbaric actions will have consequences,” said Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, the senior Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee.
As the slaughter in Syria has intensified, the Obama administration and European and Arab powers have stepped up efforts to bolster the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, an amalgam of moderate groups divided by ideology and personal rivalries.
Secretary of State John Kerry, attending a conference in Turkey of the coalition and its 11 main foreign supporters, announced Sunday a doubling of non-lethal U.S. assistance to the group to $123 million. Some of that assistance reportedly will be supplies of night-vision equipment, armored vehicles, body armor and radios to the group’s military wing.
The NATO alliance also has deployed missile-defense batteries in neighboring Turkey to dissuade Assad from attacking Syrian rebel bases and refugee camps there.
Obama, however, has rejected calls for the United States to join Saudi Arabia and Qatar in sending arms to the Syrian rebels because of concerns that they could end up in the hands of the Nusra Front and other Islamists who could use them against Israel, the U.S.-backed government of neighboring Jordan or U.S. targets.
U.S. officials also are concerned that sending in more weapons could just intensify the bloodletting between the regime controlled by Assad’s minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, and the opposition dominated by Syria’s majority Sunni Muslims.
The administration has said that the United States is closely monitoring Syria’s chemical weapons stocks, which are said to include the deadly nerve agents sarin, VX, as well as mustard gas. There also are undisclosed contingency plans for preventing those stocks from falling into the hands of Islamist groups, the administration has said.