The calls for a military intervention in Syria are getting louder, but Washington is still reluctant - even though both the Assad regime and the rebels are accusing each other of using chemical weapons.
US President Barack Obama summed it up in one short sentence: "It is not easy." The two years of civil war in Syria have cost more than 70,000 lives so far. All international efforts, embargos and diplomatic moves have failed to force President Bashar al-Assad to step down. But the US remains hesitant when it comes to possibly getting involved in the military conflict.
But could the tables be turning? Reports from Syria on Tuesday alleged that chemical weapons had been used in the fighting. Obama repeated during a press conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanjahu on Wednesday that the use of chemical weapons would fundamentally change the situation.
But so far it remains unclear who was behind Tuesday's rocket attack on Aleppo and whether indeed chemical weapons were used. Rebels and government forces accused each other while the UN is now investigating the reports following a request by Assad. But Obama wants to see facts first before he makes any decisions.
"We plan to thoroughly investigate what exactly has happened," Obama said on Thursday. A day before, the US ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, had declared during a congressional hearing that "so far we have no evidence to back up the reports that chemical weapons have been used."
Iraq's long shadow
The reluctance to invade can be explained by the most recent history. "Obama has become very cautious about yet another troop deployment in the Middle East as a consequence of the Iraq war which has triggered an allergy against sending US troops to the region," Professor for Politics, Peter Feaver, of Duke University explained. This was understandable, but "in fact, not attacking Syria might have the same political consequences in Syria that the invasion had for Iraq," he said.
President Obama rejects the accusation that the US so far has been idle. "We've helped to isolate the Assad regime internationally, we have spent hundreds of million on humanitarian aid and we've worked tirelessly with other countries in the region," he said.
Arms delivery or no-fly zone?
But for France and Britain that is not enough. They want to supply the rebels with weapons and are demanding an end to the EU arms embargo on Syria. Washington is hesitating because the US is worried the weapons might end up in the wrong hands. James Philips, Middle East expert of the conservative Heritage foundadion, suggests weapons should only be given to non-Islamist commanders and he supports Obama's line not to invade Syria.
There's general consensus that the situation is untenable - but what to do? Martin Indyk, former Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs during the Clinton years, has called for a no-fly zone. "We have to reshuffle the balance of power so that Assad does no longer think that he can hold on just because there is no ouside military intervention and if he can't use his aircraft against the civilian population it will make a significant difference in terms of shifting the balance."
Washington favors "political transition"
Former National Security Advisor Sandy Berger said there should be more pressure on the Assad regime but without supplying more weapons into the region. It was important, he said, to "support the opposition and work with the moderates so to prevent that at some stage there will be an utterly fragmented Syria or a Syria in the hands of Jihadists which would be a threat to the entire region."
Speaking at the congressional hearing, Ambassador Ford explained the official policy on Syria. "In the end we believe that a political transition is the best longterm solution to the crisis in Syria." But what if all negotiations fail and if chemical weapons are used? Ford's answer highlights Washington's present conundrum. "In a hearing like this, I absolutely don't want to go into hypotheticals."