The Obama administration is rethinking whether to send arms to Syrian rebels as part of a larger internal debate over U.S. military intervention in a civil war in which the Syrian government unleashed chemical weapons.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel was the first top administration official to publicly acknowledge President Obama's growing willingness to provide lethal weaponry to rebels fighting a two-year battle against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Obama, during an appearance in Mexico Thursday, confirmed the move was under consideration but cautioned that no decision has been made.
"We want to make sure that we look before we leap," Obama said.
The administration could escalate the U.S. role in Syria after officials confirmed a report from Israel that Assad used chemical weapons against the rebels. The use of such weapons effectively crossed what Obama had called his red line, but the president has yet to endorse any particular response.
Analysts predicted Obama would continue to remain vague about his intentions.
"This is not George Washington who has put together an army," Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, said of the Syrian anti-government rebels. "It's not based on deep loyalties -- that's the problem. The dangers are many. It's a recipe for a quagmire."
Administration officials privately say that arming the rebels is the most likely of options being weighed by the president. Some are also calling for the president to establish a no-fly zone over Syria, as he did during an uprising in Libya, and initiate limited airstrikes. Republicans and Democrats are both reluctant to put boots on the ground in the country.
Obama earlier ruled out providing direct assistance, including weapons, to the rebels out of fear that the arms would fall into the hands of extremists. But some said such a move might deter the Syrian government from using chemical weapons again. Moreover, failing to follow through on U.S. warnings to the Syrian government could embolden Assad, they said.
"I think they have painted themselves into a corner in a way they didn't expect," a former Obama counterterrorism adviser told The Washington Examiner. "Unless they take some strong action, it will look like they allowed Syria to do something Obama said he wouldn't tolerate."
The nightmare scenario for Obama is getting bogged down in a lengthy civil war with no clear exit strategy, particularly with an American public weary of extended wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Obama used U.S. military force in Libya, joining NATO allies in establishing a no-fly zone there, and some are urging a similar strategy for Syria. However, the Syrian military is more advanced than Libya's and if Obama's handling of other Arab Spring uprisings is any indication, he would prefer to keep U.S. troops on the sidelines -- as would major U.S. allies.
"There is a very strong view that we have to have very clear, very high-quality evidence before we make plans and act on that evidence," British Defense Secretary Philip Hammond said Thursday. "If there were future use of chemical agents, that would generate new opportunities."