Just days before the opening meeting of the new international "Friends of Syria" in Tunis Friday, the debate over whether the United States should provide more support – including weapons – to opposition forces is gathering steam.
Over the weekend, two influential Republican senators called for Washington to provide greater material and other support, including arms, to rebel fighters associated with the opposition in an effort to oust President Bashar al-Assad.
"I am in favour of weapons being obtained by the opposition," said Senator John McCain, who accused Russia and Iran of arming Assad, during a visit to Kabul, Afghanistan.
"People that are being massacred deserve to have the ability to defend themselves," he declared, noting that Washington could provide arms indirectly through "third-world countries" and the Arab League.
His appeal was echoed both by Sen. Lindsay Graham, who was travelling with McCain, and by an open letter to President Barack Obama issued by two right-wing pro-Israel groups - the Foreign Policy Initiative (FPI) and the Foundation for Defence of Democracies (FDD) - and signed by more than four dozen foreign policy analysts and writers, most of them prominent neo-conservatives.
"Given American interests in the Middle East, as well as the implications for those seeking freedom in other repressive societies, it is imperative that the United States and its allies not remove any option from consideration, including military intervention," wrote the letter's signatories, many of whom championed the U.S. invasion of Iraq and have urged Washington to prepare for war with Iran.
But prominent figures, both in and outside the administration, are pushing back against the growing pressure from the right to intervene, particularly with arms, in what may well become a regional powder keg.
In the latest statement by a senior administration official, Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, argued Sunday against any overt support for the still-untested opposition movement.
"I think it's premature to take a decision to arm the opposition movement in Syria, because I would challenge anyone to clearly identify for me the opposition movement in Syria at this point," said Dempsey in an interview with CNN.
"There's a number of players, all of whom are trying to reinforce their particular side of this issue. And until we're a lot clearer about, you know, who they are and what they are, I think it would be premature to talk about arming them," he noted.
In a policy brief published Tuesday by the Center for a New American Security, senior fellow Marc Lynch acknowledged that "military intervention will allow Americans to feel they are doing something," but warned that "unleashing even more violence without a realistic prospect of changing the (Syrian) regime’s behaviour or improving security is neither just nor wise."
Lynch, a George Washington University Middle East expert who is known to consult frequently with the White House, said Washington should instead "focus on engaging in a sustained and targeted campaign of pressure against the Assad regime with the end goal of bringing key components of the ruling coalition to the negotiating table to devise a post-Assad political path forward."
His 13-page report called in particular for Washington to refer Assad to the International Criminal Court (ICC) if he refuses to step down, tighten existing economic sanctions against specific individuals in the Assad regime, and encourage the opposition to develop a "unified political voice".
Despite numerous attempts to unify the opposition into a single cohesive movement, significant cleavages remain between various members of the opposition, and between the various anti-Assad organisations they represent.
Even the Syrian National Council, often considered by the West and the Arab League as the official representative body of the Syrian opposition, has witnessed a number of fractious disputes over the question of foreign military intervention, with individuals such as Washington-based Radwan Ziadeh calling for direct foreign military involvement, and others, such as chairman Burhan Ghalyoun, arguing for a supportive, second-hand role.
Opponents of any foreign involvement have flocked to the National Coordination Committee, nominally led by Syrian dissident Haytham Al- Manna, which maintains a formal independence from the SNC.
Perhaps in response to the fractured nature of the opposition, and the continuing violence from American-armed Libyan rebels, U.S. officials appear to be reticent to support the military aspect of the opposition.
Recent reports of a growing presence by the Iraq-based Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia have raised new and complex questions about whether increased involvement by Washington would encourage or deter its spread into Syria. Bombings in Damascus and Aleppo earlier this year may well have been the work of Al-Qaeda, according to recent testimony by the U.S. Director of National Intelligence (DNI) James Clapper.
A statement today by State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland emphasised that "our position fundamentally has not changed. We believe that a political solution to this is the best way to go, that is what is needed in Syria, and that if Assad will heed the view of the international community or respond to the pressure that we are bringing to bear, that we still have a chance for a political solution, we still have a chance to get to the kind of transition scenario that the Arab League has laid out and that many of the Syrian groups support."
A panel hosted today by George Washington University’s Project on Middle East Political Science echoed many of these concerns.
Steve Heydemann, a Senior Adviser for the Middle East at the U.S. Institute of Peace, warned that the "fairly decisive failure of U.S. policy toward Syria" in the past year is ill-equipped to manage the "unregulated, unchecked militarisation" of the current conflict, and called for a greater U.S. role in steering the armed Syrian opposition into a more cohesive, structured framework.
Other panelists, such as George Mason University’s Bassam Haddad, director of the Middle East Studies Program and co-founder of the popular online news journal Jadaliyya, warned that increasing foreign military intervention could have disastrous consequences.
Haddad cautioned that U.S. military intervention in any form was likely to bolster the regime’s domestic support, partly due to a perceived hypocrisy regarding Washington’s silence on the repression of uprisings in Bahrain.
Many of the strongest advocates of military involvement in Syria have included a number of former George W. Bush administration officials, including top officials of Iraq's Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), Paul Bremer and Dan Senor; former undersecretary of defence for policy Eric Edelman; as well as Elizabeth Cheney, the daughter of Dick Cheney, who served in a senior State Department post, and John Hannah, the former vice president's top Middle East aide.
The "Friends of Syria" coalition is scheduled to meet in Tunis later this week, though Russia and China have declined invitations to join after vetoing a United Nations Security Council condemning the Assad regime’s violence.
The meeting will likely set the parametres for international involvement in Syria, but with or without Washington’s express support, it appears likely that Syrian opposition movements will receive significant military and logistical assistance from a variety of other state and non-state actors. With the death toll already surpassing 6,000, it appears unlikely that the situation will end decisively for quite some time.