WASHINGTON Eleven months into the bloodiest uprising of the "Arab Spring," U.S. President Barack Obama is staking his Syria policy on a fragile and untested international coalition that has few palatable options for ending the violence.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has called the new "Friends of Syria" group, which includes U.S. Arab allies as well as Turkey, the best chance to build up Syria's fragile opposition and forge a political solution after Russia and China blocked any U.N. moves to resolve the crisis.
But the United States is playing little more than a supporting role in the new group, while some of its key allies are taking more assertive positions that may yet pull Washington into a dangerous civil war in the crossroads of the Middle East.
"The rate of impact of our efforts is being outpaced by the rate at which the Syrian regime is willing to kill people," said Steven Heydemann, a Syria expert at the U.S. Institute of Peace.
"The U.S. strategy, as it stands now, is simply too little, too late, and that's a growing point of tension within the administration."
The U.S. debate over Syria policy comes amid rising fears that the conflict has already tipped out of control, with weapons and material support flowing to rebels from Iraq and elsewhere.
Arab League diplomats said a new resolution the group passed Tuesday could allow for arms supplies to Assad's opponents. That could thrust the Obama administration into an uncomfortable position of tacitly backing Arab allies who defy its own public warnings about military involvement in the conflict.
"Right now, the opposition can probably obtain arms from raiding Syrian military supplies, adding defectors, and making some black market purchases," said a U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The White House on Tuesday reiterated its wariness of an arms race in Syria.
"We still believe that a political solution is what's needed in Syria and there is still a chance for it if the international community acts quickly," White House spokesman Tommy Vietor said.
"We do not want to contribute to the further militarization of Syria, which would take the country down a dangerous and chaotic path," he said. "However, we do not rule out additional measures should the international community wait too long and the situation grow direr."
Syria's situation is already dire enough, as President Bashar al-Assad's forces are stepping up attacks on both opposition forces and civilians caught in the crossfire.
"The war has become a matter of survival for the Assad regime. It is approaching the upper limit of violence it can employ, and if it is not yet 'all in,' it may soon be so, with potentially devastating effects on the population," Jeffrey White, a Middle East analyst at the Washington Institute, said in a policy paper issued on Tuesday.
IN THE SHADOW OF IRAN
Clinton is expected to discuss potential additional measures to stem the crisis when she travels to Tunis on February 24 for the first meeting of the new Syria contact group.
With the United Nations effectively paralyzed by the Russian and Chinese vetoes, the Arab League proposed the new Friends of Syria group as a way to coordinate the next steps on Syria with a particular focus on tightening economic sanctions and exploring ways to deliver humanitarian aid.
But in a region thick with U.S. strategic priorities including Iraq, Israel, and Turkey, and overshadowed by fears over Iran's nuclear program, Washington is struggling to craft a policy that encourages Assad's embattled opponents but does not create even more problems for President Barack Obama during a U.S. election year.
U.S. officials acknowledge that Syria's meltdown presents serious policy challenges for the United States, exacerbated by Washington's long history of tensions with the Assad government and the tenuous nature of its contacts with the opposition.
"The reality, as hard as it is to admit, is that there are very few realistic options at our disposal," said Mona Yacoubian, a Middle East expert at the Stimson Center, adding that steps such as economic sanctions may be overwhelmed by the urgency of the moment.
"These things all take time, and so it is very hard to try and undertake these kinds of options when every day there are horrific attacks on civilians," she said.
The United States has ruled out the kind of international coalition that came together to topple Libya's Muammar Gaddafi last year - saying Syria's complex ethnic and sectarian mix, highly urbanized population, divided opposition and powerful military all argue against that kind of intervention.
U.S. officials also say they need more information about Syria's political opposition and the nascent "Free Syrian Army", widely seen as a disjointed effort by various armed factions with little internal coordination or control.
But some powerful voices in the U.S. Congress - including some who were doubtful about the Libya effort - have recently suggested that the U.S. look at supporting a more direct approach.
"Now is not the time to rule out any option that could save innocent lives in Syria," Republican Senator John McCain said this week in a letter calling for a Senate committee hearing on possible Pentagon contingency planning.
THE RUSSIA QUESTION
Clinton, who lobbied Russia unsuccessfully to back a strong U.N. resolution on Syria, this week hinted she believed there might still be time to win Moscow's support for tougher measures although she conceded that an Arab League proposal for new peacekeeping forces was untenable.
A former U.S. official in close touch with both senior U.S. and Arab officials, said the administration had urged Syrian opposition leaders not to summarily reject any Moscow-mediated dialogue with Assad, but to insist on a simultaneous ceasefire and an end to the bloodshed.
But many political analysts say Moscow will not drop Assad any time soon, leaving the Obama administration facing the prospect of a fresh conflagration in the Middle East and a deepening dispute with Russia at a time when it needs to maintain the international consensus for more pressure on Iran.
Any U.S. hopes for a swift internal resolution to Syria's crisis - a "one bullet election," as one analyst put it, to seal Assad's fate - appear to be receding as the conflict drags on. A rapid escalation of humanitarian aid to Syria's embattled civilian population is also seen a huge technical and political challenge.
Heydemann said Washington now appeared to hope that "Friends of Syria" group will evolve into an effective partner for Syria's political opposition, helping it to overcome internal differences and mature into a viable alternative to Assad's long and bloody rule.
But he and others agree that sooner or later, the Obama administration will have to come to grips with the fact that Syria's crisis has already taken on a military dimension, and that it will soon be time to handle it that way.
"As the Obama administration agonizes over arming the opposition, the arming is already happening," said Tony Badran, a research fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a Washington think tank whose members are often associated with neoconservative views.
"They need to get in on it and supervise that framework and have a measure of control and influence. You don't want it to proliferate with the U.S. completely in the dark."
(Additional reporting by Susan Cornwell, Tabassum Zakaria and Warren Strobel; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)