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US agonizes over Syria but sees no new options

Smoke billows from buildings following a reported air strike by government forces on the Qadam suburb on the outskirts of the Syrian capital Damascus on February 12, 2014
Smoke billows from buildings following a reported air strike by government forces on the Qadam suburb on the outskirts of the Syrian capital Damascus on February 12, 2014

The United States admits the situation in "crumbling" Syria is an "apocalyptic disaster" -- implicitly accepting that its policy toward the war-tormented country is not working -- but no better one is on the horizon.

The Obama administration is sticking to its line that it cannot "impose" outcomes on a chaotic battlefield between President Bashar al-Assad's forces and a splintered opposition, despite proliferating reports of atrocities, a deepening humanitarian crisis and fears extremist militants will find a haven in the midst of the horror.

Officials largely concur with the position of UN Special Envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi that the current painstaking Geneva talks process has made little or no progress -- other than to get warring sides in the same room.

President Barack Obama was asked about his policy during a press conference with French President Francois Hollande on Tuesday and launched into a prolonged discourse -- betraying apparent guilt and concern over the humanitarian and political implications of Syria's plight -- but no clear ideas to mitigate it.

"Nobody is going to deny that there's enormous frustration here," Obama said.

The president said that Syria was "crumbling" and posing a great risk to US partners like Jordan and Lebanon, but said that he did not see a military solution to the conflict.

He reiterated his belief that a US military intervention in Syria would not end the civil war, nor improve the dire situation -- though did not come up with any fresh policies that might.

"We are continuing to explore every possible avenue to solve this problem, because it's... heartbreaking to see what's happening to the Syrian people," Obama said.

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper painted an even bleaker picture of Syria, and said Washington worried that reports of widespread torture and atrocities were authentic.

"When you consider the humanitarian disaster in addition to the two-and-a-half million refugees, the six-and-a-half or seven million that are internally displaced, the 134,000-plus people who've been killed, it is an apocalyptic disaster," he told a congressional committee on Tuesday.

A day later, Obama's subordinates were left to parry accusations that the administration had basically assigned a failing grade to its own policies.

Rebel fighters rush to help unloading aid food during a UN-led humanitarian operation in the besieged Syrian city of Homs on February 12, 2014
Rebel fighters rush to help unloading aid food during a UN-led humanitarian operation in the besieged Syrian city of Homs on February 12, 2014

State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said Washington had been doing "quite a few things that are meaningful."

She cited US efforts to push a diplomatic and political transition in Syria. Officials also highlight the deal reached last year with Russia requiring Assad to hand over Syria's chemical weapons stocks to avoid US air strikes.

"I would really take issue with the notion that we're doing nothing," she said.

At the White House, spokesman Jay Carney noted that the United States was the largest aid donor to Syrian refugees -- a common riposte to reporters who question the administration's policies.

But amid new calls for Washington to arm opposition rebels in Syria, and with the idea of humanitarian corridors floating around, Carney argued that Washington was pursuing the "right" policy.

"This is an extremely difficult problem... the path forward here is complicated and will be long, but that the only resolution here is through a negotiated political settlement," he said.

Hopes of that settlement remain elusive, however -- and Washington's goals are complicated by the fact that any effort to enforce a solution would require the acquiescence of the UN Security Council.

Just how problematic that would be was reflected in Obama's call for Moscow to stop blocking a draft UN resolution designed to lift the siege of Homs -- where thousands of Syrian civilians are trapped -- and other cities.

Moscow is standing by its ally Assad, to Washington's deep frustration -- not for the first time in the Syrian conflict.

With the president -- who has made exiting and avoiding foreign entanglements an article of faith -- agonizing about his lack of options in Syria, political opponents are on the attack.

"Our government is doing what we have sadly done too often in the past," said Republican Senator John McCain.

"We are averting our eyes. we try to comfort our guilty consciences by telling ourselves that we are not doing nothing, but it is a claim made in bad faith, for everyone concedes that nothing we are doing is equal to the horrors we face.

"We are telling ourselves that we have no good options, as if there are ever good options when it comes to foreign policy in the real world."

McCain has in the past called for no-fly zones over Syria or efforts to arm moderate rebels to take on Assad's regime.

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