WASHINGTON — The Obama administration, hoping that the conflict in Syria has reached a turning point, is considering deeper intervention to help push President Bashar Assad from power, according to government officials involved in the discussions.
While no decisions have been made, the administration is considering several alternatives, including directly providing arms to some opposition fighters.
The most urgent decision, likely to come next week, is whether NATO should deploy surface-to-air missiles in Turkey, ostensibly to protect that country from Syrian missiles that could carry chemical weapons. The State Department spokesman, Victoria Nuland, said Wednesday that the Patriot missile system would not be ‘‘for use beyond the Turkish border.’’
But some strategists and administration officials believe that Syrian air force pilots might fear how else the two missile batteries could be used. If so, they could be intimidated from bombing the northern Syrian border towns where the rebels control considerable territory. A NATO survey team is in Turkey, examining possible sites for the batteries.
Other, more distant options include directly providing arms to opposition fighters rather than only continuing to use other countries, especially Qatar, to do so. A riskier course would be to insert CIA officers or allied intelligence services on the ground in Syria, to work more closely with opposition fighters in areas that they now largely control.
Administration officials discussed all of these steps before the presidential election. But the combination of President Obama’s reelection, which has made the White House more willing to take risks, and a series of recent tactical successes by rebel forces, one senior administration official said, ‘‘has given this debate a new urgency, and a new focus.’’
In the case of Syria, some officials continue to worry that the risks of intervention — both in American lives and in setting off a broader conflict, potentially involving Turkey — are too great to justify action. Others argue that more aggressive steps are justified in Syria by the loss in life there, the risks that its chemical weapons could get loose, and the opportunity to deal a blow to Iran’s only ally in the region. The debate now coursing through the White House, the Pentagon, the State Department and the CIA resembles a similar one among US allies.
“Look, let’s be frank, what we’ve done over the last 18 months hasn’t been enough,’’ British Prime Minister David Cameron said three weeks ago after visiting a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan. ‘‘The slaughter continues, the bloodshed is appalling, the bad effects it’s having on the region, the radicalization, but also the humanitarian crisis that is engulfing Syria. So let’s work together on really pushing what more we can do.’’ Cameron has discussed those options directly with Obama, White House officials say.
France and Britain have recognized a newly formed coalition of opposition groups, which the United States helped piece together. So far, Washington has not done so.
Senior congressional officials and diplomats in the region said that they had not been briefed on any impending policy shifts and expressed doubts any would be made until Obama had selected his new national security team, including new secretaries of state and defense, a new director of the CIA, and perhaps more. In recent months, these officials and diplomats said the administration had kept them updated about its Syria policy.
Until now, the United States has offered only limited support to the military campaign against the Syrian government, instead providing nearly $200 million in humanitarian and other nonlethal aid. In addition, a small number of CIA officers have operated secretly in southern Turkey for several months, according to US officials and Arab intelligence officers, helping allies decide which Syrian opposition fighters across the border would receive shipments of weapons.
US officials say the administration is now weighing whether the United States should play a more direct role in supplying the opposition fighters with weapons to help ensure that the arms reach the intended groups.