For all the recent discussion in Washington about how to proceed in Syria, the sense remains that the United States is not yet ready for an entirely new, more aggressive direction on the two-year-old conflict that has claimed at least 70,000 lives and created at least 1.4 million refugees. But with Turkey now asserting that Syria has used chemical weapons -- adding weight to the claims from Britain, France, Qatar, and the United States -- and with the conflict growing bloodier and more complicated each day, the Obama administration faces greater pressure to deepen its involvement on the political, humanitarian, and military fronts.
The past week has seen stirrings of diplomatic movement on Syria: Secretary of State John Kerry headed to Russia to meet with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and ended up leaving with a plan to "seek to convene an international conference." Meanwhile, in Washington a bipartisan duo of foreign policy heavyweights, Republican Sen. John McCain and Democratic Sen. Carl Levin, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, took to the Senate floor to push President Barack Obama to lead a military campaign against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government. Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, who favors arming Syrian rebels, said he sees a "sea change" now turning in favor of the Syrian opposition.
Yet when it comes to turning the rhetoric into reality, few in Washington close to the Syrian conflict expect to see any quick action. Though calls to take more agressive action are getting louder and more frequent, Washington's "go-slow caucus" still exercises the power behind the scenes, emphasizing the narrative of a gradual, diplomatic approach -- one echoed in the White House. In conversations with State Department officials and three senior former statesmen and advisors, a picture emerges that when it comes to intervention into a murky and dangerous conflict in Syria, the consensus in the Obama administration appears to be that caution is the better part of valor.
Within the State Department, officials say that "whatever is going to be done is on a slow track" and that they have not yet felt a momentum shift in the direction of greater action. More help for refugees and additional political and economic support for bordering countries may come; this week, the United States announced $100 million more for humanitarian aid to Syrian refugees, with nearly half that amount going to Jordan but that remains far short of the more muscular military interventions some have been seeking.
For its part, the White House has supported diplomatic overtures, including Kerry's visit to Russia, and asserted once more that "Syria's future cannot include Bashar al-Assad." But at 1600 Pennsylvania, the sense among several officials I spoke to at the State Department is that "this is not a war they want to be part of." Notes one State official, "if they are going to do something they are going to do it on their own time, in their own way, and they are not going to stumble into this."
The White House disputes the idea that it has not been leading on Syria.
"We are working urgently to hasten a transition from Bashar al-Assad to a democratic Syria that is inclusive of all Syrians," says National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden. "Our nonlethal assistance to the Syrian opposition has been on an upward trajectory, and the president has directed his national security team to identify additional measures so that we can continue to increase our assistance. As the president has said, we continue to explore every available, practical, and responsible means to end the suffering of the Syrian people and accelerate a political transition. All options are on the table."
In Washington, those who support more actively backing the rebel forces have been heartened to see a push for one of those options -- legislation to arm the opposition. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-NJ) offered a bill that would authorize the transfer of U.S.-supplied weapons, training, and supplies to vetted rebel groups.
But others say that for every Sen. Menendez and Sen. Marco Rubio who favor arming the rebels, there are an equal number of lawmakers quietly saying, "not so fast" -- and who want nothing to do with measures that place the United States on a greater war footing. Recent polling shows not even half of the American public support military force in Syria, even "if it is confirmed that Syria used chemical weapons against anti-government groups."
As discussions about options such as establishing no-fly zones, arming Syrian rebels, and pushing for lethal aid continue, many diplomatic veterans say time is of the essence. Amb. Tom Pickering, who reached the Foreign Service's highest rank of career ambassador and served as undersecretary of state for political affairs in a sterling diplomatic career that spanned five decades, has served as ambassador to both Russian and Jordan, two central players in the Syria crisis. He is among those who argue the United States can and must push harder for a diplomatic solution to the conflict.