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There are some genuine concerns among analysts and Syrian activists that U.S. military action, if merely punitive as the Obama administration has suggested, could result in an escalation in the civil war.

“You could, in fact, see an empowered Assad who could come out and say, ‘The Americans attacked us and we survived,’ and in a sense spin the narrative to a position of power and it could have a potentially debilitating psychological impact on the opposition and the civilian population,” Ms. O'Bagy said.

Syrians are worried that the Assad regime will lash out by shelling civilians during any U.S.-led operation, blame the deaths on the U.S. and seek to score points in a propaganda war.

Opposition activists say a U.S. military operation must significantly degrade Mr. Assad’s military capabilities.

“We have been waiting since 2011 for [the international community] to stop Assad’s thugs,” said Sami Ibrahim, a Damascus-based spokesman for the Syrian Network for Human Rights. “They have to keep punching Assad until they destroy all his power. The sooner they can stop Assad’s killing machine, the better.”