The U.S. reluctance to become deeply involved in Syria has likely emboldened dictator Bashar Assad to use chemical weapons in his country's 2-year-old civil war, analysts say.
"It's very clear Bashar al Assad is not being deterred by our policy or frankly anybody else's," said Syria specialist Andrew J. Tabler of the Washington Institute. "He knows very well the U.S. policy will not be more assertive, and I think he's testing our 'red line' right now to see what he can get away with."
What started as peaceful protests in March 2011 as part of the Arab Spring uprisings is now a violent sectarian struggle between a Syrian regime controlled by the president's minority Alawite sect — an offshoot of Shiite Islam — and rebel forces mostly from the country's Sunni majority population.
More than 70,000 Syrians have been killed in the conflict, according to a recent United Nations estimate. The United States has repeatedly called for Mr. Assad to step down, but Washington has been unwilling to directly provide weapons and other military support to the rebels, citing concerns that some of those forces include Islamic terrorists.
Syrian officials deny there is a civil war and accuse foreign-backed terrorists and Islamic extremists of attempting to overthrow the government. Analysts say the fiercest rebel fighters have been members of Jabhat al-Nusra, or "the Nusra Front," an al Qaeda affiliate the United States has designated as a terrorist group.
Barak Barfi of the New America Foundation in Washington said Mr. Assad is benefiting politically from the presence of Islamic terrorists in the rebel movement.
"The regime is in great shape right now. People on the ground say the Jabhat al-Nusra has hijacked the revolution. They're in control of everything. They control the arms, they control the grain, the supplies, and the regime is able to demonize the opposition as al Qaeda and Islamists right now, and the rebels have their backs against the wall," said Mr. Barfi, who recently was in Syria.
"There's a lot of infighting among the rebels. There's a lot of finger-pointing. ... The Syrian opposition is very fragmented," he said. "The rebels do advance, but it's illusory. It's not like they're making progress to bring the regime down in Damascus."
Last summer and fall, rebels gained territory in northern Syria, and it seemed as if the regime would collapse. However, over the winter, the regime began to attack the opposition with more-lethal weapons, such as scud missiles, Mr. Barfi said.
Rebels have asked the United States and Western nations to intervene with air strikes, declare a no-fly zone, or set up a humanitarian corridor, but the West has opted to work for a political solution with an international coalition that includes Russia, a longtime Syria ally.
The Obama administration repeatedly has said the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime is a "red line" and a "game changer," but analysts say that there is no indication that the United States will act militarily anytime soon.
The administration's policy statement on chemical weapons was so ambiguous that it left room for a lot of responses and "open questions," said Aram Nerguizian of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
"This is not the kind of event that's going to trigger the [U.S.] transfer of man-portable air defense systems or anti-tank weapons," he said, adding that a limited strike on chemical-weapons facilities would not end the civil war or achieve the U.S. goal of Syrian regime change.
"The worst possible scenario is a ... mass mobilization and invasion, where the U.S. essentially becomes a large target," he said.
"Once you put boots on the ground ... you become part of the scenery of Syria. It means you're a target. We'll have to be ready for the death of [U.S. troops] at the hands of Assad loyalists, and potentially at the hands of those fighting along Assad such as Hezbollah and others, which means there a lot of room for mission creep."
But backing away from a "red line" would hurt President Obama's credibility, said Danielle Pletka, vice president for foreign and defense policy for the American Enterprise Institute.
"When you're in a position of redefining your rhetoric, you're in a bad place. It means not only do you not have a policy, you don't have a clear set of principles that define your vision for the American role in the world," she said.
The United States plans to double its nonlethal assistance to opposition fighters, bringing the total to about $250 million in aid since the fighting began, Secretary of State John F. Kerry announced Sunday.
The newest round of aid may include for the first time armored vehicles, body armor, night-vision goggles and other military supplies.
The United States has supported the supplying of arms from allies and has deployed Patriot missiles along Turkey's border with Syria. Last week, Washington announced the deployment of 200 U.S. soldiers to Jordan to assist efforts to contain violence along that country's border.
The United States also will provide an additional $25 million in food assistance for Syrian residents and refugees, bringing the total food and medical aid to $409 million.
"We appreciate the limited support given by the international community, but it is not sufficient," the opposition Syrian National Coalition said in a statement released at an international conference Sunday in Istanbul.
"We call on the international community to be more forthcoming and unreserved to fulfill its responsibilities in extending support that is needed by the Syrian people."
Some European Union members, notably Germany and the Netherlands, fear that more weapons flowing into Syria will only increase the bloodshed and that the arms could fall into the hands of extremists.
"We need to figure out who in the opposition we want to help, and then we need to help them," Ms. Pletka said. "This is not an administration that believes in being in front on anything."
• This story is based in part on wire service reports.
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