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Mr. Senor said there are always good and bad actors, and the U.S. role should be to “make sure in a post-Assad regime that the good, the responsible actors have the upper hand” — something he said will take stiff American leadership.

“Is the Obama administration doing that? I don’t know,” Mr. Senor said. “They may be doing it now. But for a very long time they have been against it and we can only take them by their word. Our criticism is that they’ve chosen for a long time to be hands off — to not play this sort of role in Syria.”

Beyond Syria

Syrian instability represents too great a threat to U.S. security interests to be ignored, said Meghan L. O’Sullivan, an international affairs professor at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and adviser to the Romney campaign on Middle East issues.

She pointed to a range of concerns from the likely presence of chemical weapons in Syria to the impact that a widening conflict may have on Turkey, Israel and Iran.

“What happens in Syria has implications for the whole stability of the region,” she said, adding that the U.S. should be working as closely as possible with the opposition.

Others say the region’s volatility, along with the specter of Russian influence in Syria, is one of the reasons for the Obama administration’s non-aggressive approach.

“The worst-case scenario would be to enter publicly into a proxy war with Russia, with the U.S. pumping a lot of weaponry into the rebellion while the Russians continue to arm the Assad regime,” Mr. Gowan said. “This was the nightmare scenario at the start of the year that I think the U.S. wanted to avoid.”

As a result, Mr. Gowan credits the administration’s attempt to implement a two-track strategy.

“On the one hand it has maintained the diplomatic track at the U.N. even while being very frustrated by Russia’s opposition to any serious action against Syria,” he said. “On the other hand, the administration has been working, it appears clandestinely, with countries that are arming the rebels.”

He said the administration’s slow embrace of Syrian opposition forces last year was likely driven by concerns that an ouster of Mr. Assad might jeopardize the security of Israel, which shares part of Syria’s southwestern border. But that calculation has changed.

“Early on, I think the Israeli calculation was that Assad had been a fairly stable partner,” Mr. Gowan said. “Now we’re in a situation where the top priority has to be probably containing the conflict so that it doesn’t spill over into a wider regional conflict that puts Israel in danger.”

Specter of Iraq

Joshua Landis, a leading scholar on Syria who heads the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, offered another explanation for the slow action: reluctance to engage in nation-building in the Middle East.

Syria promises to be one big car bomb, with lots of militias and impossible-to-do nation-building,” he said. “So I think there are skeptics in the Obama White House, people who watched George W. Bush flounder around in the Middle East, who have decided that they don’t want to do that. So they’ve hid behind the United Nations.

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