Printed on: February 19, 2014

Obama struggles to find winning formula in Syria


WASHINGTON (AP) -- With peace talks failing, Syria's government on the offensive and moderate rebels pushed aside by al-Qaida-linked militants, the Obama administration is struggling for new ideas to halt a savage civil war.

Extending beyond Syria, the crisis is also an accelerating national security threat to the United States, officials say.

And that, in part, has led to a fresh look at previously shelved ideas, including more robust assistance to Western-backed rebels.

Officials also have looked at newer, more far-reaching options, including drone strikes on rebel factions who might aspire to attack the United States -- though such strikes are seen as unlikely for now.

American officials remain hampered by the same constraints that have stymied the U.S. response throughout the three-year civil war, including concern that lethal assistance could end up in the hands of extremists. And then there also is President Barack Obama's own distaste for military action.

Speaking cautiously, White House spokesman Jay Carney said Tuesday, "We have to examine what the alternatives some might be proposing are and whether they're in our national security interest." He added that the administration also was concerned about whether stepped-up intervention could lead to "unintended consequences."

Obama has yet to approve any policy shift. His top aides plan to meet at the White House before week's end to examine options. And last week, intelligence chiefs from the U.S. and several other countries met in Washington.

A Western official said that meeting indicated there was new motivation to see what more could be done, including strengthening the moderate opposition and ramping up humanitarian assistance. The renewed focus has been sparked in part by the apparent impasse in the Geneva peace talks and by increasing concerns about the potential terrorist threat emanating from Syria, according to the official, who was not authorized to discuss the matter by name and spoke only on condition of anonymity.

In recent weeks, Obama's senior national security aides have also delivered dire warnings about extremist havens in Syria, and about Americans and other Westerners joining the fight and being radicalized.

"Syria has become a matter of homeland security," Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said this month.