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US 'evaluating' next steps in Syria conflict

Syrian anti-regime protesters wave pre-Baath Syrian flags during a demonstration in Aleppo on February 8, 2013
Syrian anti-regime protesters wave pre-Baath Syrian flags, now used by the Free Syrian Army, during a demonstration after the weekly Friday prayers in the Bustan al-Qasr district of the northern city of Aleppo on February 8, 2013. The US is weighing its n

The United States is weighing its next steps to try to end the conflict in Syria, new Secretary of State John Kerry said Friday, adding there was "too much killing" in the 22-month war.

His comments came amid hints of deep divisions in President Barack Obama's cabinet over US policy in Syria, where some 60,000 people have died as opposition rebels battle to oust President Bashar al-Assad.

It was revealed this week that the White House had rejected secret plans drawn up last summer by Kerry's predecessor, Hillary Clinton, and former CIA chief, General David Petraeus, to arm the Syrian opposition.

"It is a very complicated and very dangerous situation," warned Kerry, who only took over as America's top diplomat late last Friday.

John Kerry answers questions during a joint press briefing with Canadian FM in Washington, DC, on February 8, 2013
US Secretary of State John Kerry answers a question during a joint press briefing with Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird following their meeting at the State Department in Washington on February 8, 2013.

"There's too much killing and there's too much violence and we obviously want to try to find a way forward," he said, adding that everybody in the administration was "deeply distressed" by the continued violence in Syria.

"We are evaluating now, we are taking a look at what steps, if any, diplomatic particularly, might be able to be taken in an effort to reduce that violence and deal with that situation."

But he stopped short of saying whether the administration would review its long-held position of not providing arms to the Syrian opposition.

So far the United States is the largest single donor of aid, having pledged some $365 million to help the Syrian opposition and refugees. Some 760,000 people have fled the country and another 2.5 million are internally displaced.

But Washington has thus far refused to help tip the military balance on the ground by arming the Syrian opposition, limiting itself to only non-lethal support such as communications equipment.

News that other senior cabinet members, including Pentagon chief Leon Panetta and chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey, had supported the Clinton-Petraeus plan, further fuelled the notion of major differences over what to do about Syria.

Kerry said he was not aware of what decisions had been made before he took over as secretary of state a week ago, stressing he was focused on the future.

"I'm not going to go backwards. This is a new administration now, the president's second term. I'm a new secretary of state, and we're going forwards from this point," he stressed.

The White House also defended its decision to reject the plan to arm the Syrian opposition, with spokesman Jay Carney arguing the problem is not a lack of arms in Syria and hinting that regional powers are supplying the rebels while Iran is backing its close ally Assad.

Carney said the US priority was to ensure that weapons provided by Americans did not end up in the wrong hands and create more danger for "the US, the Syrian people or for Israel."

But analysts say had the US administration pressed ahead with the proposals to arm the rebels several months ago, the situation on the ground in Syria today might look very different.

"I firmly believe you have to change the military balance on the ground even for a political solution. The fact is that this regime, and Assad, is not going to do himself out of a job," Salman Shaikh, director of the Qatar-based Brookings Doha Center, told AFP.

"If the decision had been taken last summer, we may well be in a situation by which the Free Syrian Army and the more professional elements could have become much more capable themselves by now in organizing the resistance."

Now a strong "disillusionment" is setting in among the opposition, many of whom had been primed to expect a lifting of the US arms ban.

"Everyone's conflicted, these are tough decisions. But sometimes you have to make the tough decisions," Shaikh added.