WASHINGTON — Foes of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad are distracted by fragmentation within their ranks, foreign meddling and new finger-pointing over chemical weapons as the regime more firmly entrenches itself, giving no sign of stepping down any time soon.
With the two-year civil war slogging on, the United States appears closer than ever to sending military support to Syrian rebels in hopes of breaking the bloody impasse that has left more than 70,000 dead and forced more than 1 million refugees to flee their homes. Beyond at least the threat of military intervention, there is growing consensus among the U.S. and its allies that little can be done to put new pressure on Assad to go.
New allegations this week — almost as quickly debunked — that chemical weapons may have been used against neighborhoods outside Damascus and in Syria's north spooked the White House and Congress and ratcheted up demands for the U.S. to hamper what one Democratic lawmaker described as Assad's "killing spree."
On his first foreign trip of his second term, President Barack Obama this week maintained his long-standing view that "Assad must go, and I believe he will go." He repeated his caution about sending military assistance to Syrian opposition forces, which could prolong the fighting and unintentionally put U.S. weapons in the hands of Islamic extremists.
But Obama also held firm to his stance that Assad would cross a red line if he were to use his suspected stockpile of chemical weapons — including nerve agents and mustard gas — against the Syrian people.
"It's tragic, it's heartbreaking, and the sight of children and women being slaughtered that we've seen so much I think has to compel all of us to say, 'What more can we do?'" Obama said Friday during a news conference in Amman, Jordan. "And that's a question that I'm asking as president every single day."
Secretary of State John Kerry travels to Paris on Wednesday to meet French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius for talks expected to focus on arming Syrian rebels. The discussion also is expected to touch on the suspected use of chemical weapons in Syria, according to French officials.
On Thursday, a U.S. official cited strong indications that chemical weapons were not used in an attack Tuesday in northern Aleppo province but could not rule out the possibility. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the matter involved intelligence-gathering. At the same time, the U.N. said it would investigate whether chemical weapons were used and specifically is looking at the regime's claim that rebel forces launched the deadly agents.
But U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon warned that the investigation "will not happen overnight" — meaning that the debate over whether the deadly agents were used almost certainly will drag out. And State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland on Friday acknowledged difficulties of the U.S. launching its own probe, largely because American investigators cannot visit the sites of the alleged attacks.
The chemical weapons quandary is the newest of several issues that have distracted the Syrian opposition and international community, while Assad digs in even deeper against disjointed plans on how to oust him.
Assad "has not yet decided that his days are numbered and that he's going to have to leave," Ambassador Robert Ford, Obama's envoy to Syria, told a House Foreign Affairs hearing this week.
Ford also told the panel that the Obama administration is reviewing U.S. policy against giving military aid to the Free Syrian Army's leadership. "We do regularly review this — I'll be very clear about that," he said.
The Assad regime is receiving arms and other military assistance from Iran, Russia and Lebanese Hezbollah. Ford also cited indirect help from Iraq and Iraqi fighters that "is absolutely prolonging the conflict," although Baghdad denies being involved on either side of the Syrian war.
House delegate Eni Faleomavaega, a nonvoting Democrat from American Samoa, described the foreign aid to the regime more bluntly. "It's all military hardware that Assad needs to continue his killing spree," Faleomavaega said.
France and Britain are lobbying the European Union to lift an arms embargo on Syria to raise the possibility of sending weapons to rebel fighters as early as May. So far, the U.S. has joined Germany and other EU nations in resisting supplying arms to opposition forces. But Kerry said this week that the U.S. would not stand in the way of other nations that decide to arm the rebels.
Congress increasingly is pushing the White House to send military aid to anti-regime fighters. On Thursday, Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., and the panel's top Republican, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, asked Obama to deploy Patriot missiles near the Syrian border in southern Turkey to deter Assad's air forces and destroy regime aircraft. The senators stopped short of asking for arms for rebels, but they encouraged stronger aid to vetted groups, including intelligence, communications equipment and humanitarian assistance, like food and medical care.
"Over the past two years that the horrific conflict in Syria has pressed on, both Syrians on the ground and key allies across the region have made clear their hope for stronger American support," wrote Levin and McCain. "We urge you to take steps to ease the suffering of the Syrian people and protect U.S. national security interests."
Disarray within the opposition forces also has stymied the move to unseat Assad, although rebels control territory in Syria's north and east. Ford described the opposition as divided into political and military wings, and "both are not entirely unified."
This week, the Syrian National Coalition elected American-educated Ghassan Hitto as its prime minister but almost immediately witnessed a walkout by about a dozen of its members, who protested they were sidelined from the decision. The coalition is recognized by the U.S. as a legitimate representative of the Syrian people, but some of its members complain it is dominated by fundamentalists from the Muslim Brotherhood, a conservative Islamist movement.
Additionally, the rebels have been joined by what Ford described as a small minority of fighters known as Jabhat al-Nusra, a powerful offshoot of al-Qaida in Iraq. Al-Nusra has claimed responsibility for most of the deadliest suicide bombings against regime and military facilities and, as a result, has gained popularity among some rebels. However, the group has alienated secular-minded fighters, which is one reason the U.S. has not equipped the rebels with weapons. The Obama administration designated al-Nusra as a terrorist organization last December.
Western nations worry that al-Nusra or other rebels will get their hands on Syria's chemical weapons stockpile — but are as concerned that Assad will use them against his people, although he has vowed not to. Ford declined to discuss how the White House would retaliate if Assad crosses Obama's red line and deploys the deadly chemicals, but he said the regime might be more tempted to do so as it loses ground.
Ban said he was aware of charges that Assad's military used chemical weapons against the rebels in the Aleppo attack. But the secretary-general did not make clear whether the rebels' claim also would be part of the new U.N. probe. Obama, meanwhile, has said he is "deeply skeptical" that opposition forces used the chemical weapons.
Because of the risks getting investigators to the war zone, it likely will be difficult to prove whether chemical weapons were used, said Ralf Trapp, a chemical and biological weapons scientist formerly at the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. He said evidence is best collected at least within several miles from the site at the time of the attack.
"You really have to be on the ground," Trapp said in a telephone interview from France. "You need to be where the event occurred and you need to speak with the victims. In a civil war, that's not easy."
Ford said the rebels have begun to outmatch the regime's military and captured key cities and officials while controlling Syria's land borders with Turkey and Iraq. Heavy fighting near Assad's palaces in Damascus recently "would have been rattling his windows," Ford said.
But Assad could remain in power at least through the end of the year. For one, there are few places he could flee to without fearing prosecution or assassination. "Assad has very little impetus to do anything but stay there," said Rep. Scott Perry, R-Pa.
Without more foreign pressure and aid, it's unlikely Assad would leave for months or even years, said Ken Pollack, a Mideast expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington and a member of the National Security Council during the Clinton administration.
"The situation has degenerated into a bloody, but potentially very durable stalemate," Pollack said.
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