By Carlo Munoz and Jeremy Herb - 05/20/12 10:00 AM EDT
With the evident failure of an international peace plan designed to end the violence in Syria, recent actions by the Obama administration indicate the White House could be inching toward a military response, a Senate Armed Services Committee member said.
"I think they're moving toward some more real action," Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Ct.) told The Hill regarding the White House's evolving position on Syria.
Lieberman, along with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), has been at the forefront of the congressional effort to provide military support to Syria.
While the Obama administration has been steadfast in its desire for a diplomatic solution to the growing Syrian crisis, the sense that time is starting to run out has begun to resonate in the halls of the White House and The Pentagon.
Nearly nine months have passed since Syrian president Bashar al-Assad began his savage crackdown on anti-government rebels. Assad troops have used tanks and heavy artillery to devastating effect against poorly equipped rebel forces armed with nothing more than assault rifles and various other small arms.
Even after Assad agreed in April to abide by a peace plan brokered by U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan, his forces continued to bombard rebel strongholds in Homs and elsewhere.
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White House press secretary Jay Carney in May called upon international advocates of the Annan peace plan to "admit defeat" and begin considering other options.
"It is clear ... that the [peace] plan has not been succeeding thus far,” Carney said during a May 3 briefing at the White House.
The United States has begun to help coordinate deliveries of weapons paid for by several Gulf states to the anti-Assad forces in recent weeks, according to news reports.
Prior to those reports, the State and Defense Department said the U.S. was only supplying Syrian rebels with non-lethal assistance in the form of communication equipment and night-vision goggles.
American military forces have also been participating in a month-long military exercise with several Middle Eastern countries in Jordan. just to the south of Syria.
The exercises, which began earlier this month, are focused on honing counterterrorism and border security skills of those partner nations.
In April, top U.S. and NATO military leaders explored possible political and military outcomes in Syria should Western powers decide to remove Assad by force, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey said during a May 5 speech in Washington.
However, administration and military officials argued these recent events did not indicate the White House was gearing up for a potential conflict in Syria.
White House officials told the Washington Post on Tuesday that it was adhering to its position to not supply weapons or lethal material to rebel forces.
“We are increasing our nonlethal assistance to the Syrian opposition, and we continue to coordinate our efforts with friends and allies in the region and beyond in order to have the biggest impact on what we are collectively doing,” a State Department official told the Post.
The Defense Department told the Post the Jordan exercises are part of a long-standing effort by the Pentagon to increase cooperation in the Gulf region, and the exercises did not represent any real-world scenario.
Despite those claims, advocates for military action in Syria claim the administration is moving down the right path, arguing the repercussions of American inaction could reverberate throughout the Middle East.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) expressed concern that the unrest in Syria could lead to destabilization in other countries like Iraq, whose fledgling government is already wrestling with a revived al Qaeda within its borders.
Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno voiced similar concerns to members of the Senate Armed Services Committee in March. The anti-Assad rebellion was “adding a difficult piece” to efforts to maintain peace in Iraq.
That problem has been compounded by the fact that al Qaeda fighters have reportedly infiltrated the ranks of the Free Syria Army and other anti-government groups in the country.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he believes al Qaeda had a hand in a May 10 attack against military targets in Damascus, according to news reports.
The attack, which included twin car bombs going off outside a Syrian military intelligence building, ended with 55 dead and dozens injured.
Last Tuesday, a convoy carrying a team of U.N. observers was hit by a improvised explosive devicee while traveling through the town of Khan-Sheikhoun in northern Syria. The inspection team has since been pulled from the country.
The use of coordinated car bombs and improvised explosive devices are remarkably similar to the tactics used against American troops by al Qaeda during the darkest days of the Iraq war.
"I think [the administration] needs to be paying close attention," on the effect the Syrian conflict is having in countries like Iraq, Cornyn said, adding President Obama was still "not putting as much pressure as [they] should on the Assad regime."
But the increasing involvement of al Qaeda in the Syrian uprising has been one of the main reasons why DOD has been reluctant to arm the rebels.
If heavy weapons are funneled into Syria, it’s possible those arms could later be turned against American or allied troops by al Qaeda fighters.
That concern, among others, will be one of many issues on the table during NATO's annual summit in Chicago beginning on Saturday.
If military action is taken, the responsibility for those operations must be shared with NATO and should not result in American troops on the ground in Syria, Lieberman pointed out.
It was a NATO-led operation with American support that eventually ousted former Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi.
But concerns over Syria's stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons, coupled with Syria's better trained and more disciplined military could make action difficult compared to the Libyan operation.
But to Lieberman, Cornyn, McCain and other advocates of military action in Syria, those concerns are premature at this point. "Right now [all] they're asking for is ... the weapons," he said.