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As threats from the Syrian war expand, Obama mulls options

WASHINGTON--For the United States, Syria's civil war is threatening to start hitting closer to home.

Peace talks between the Syrian government and opposition are faltering. President Bashar Assad's military is on the offensive and the rebels are in disarray. Most distressing to the Obama administration, U.S. officials say al-Qaida-linked militants are squeezing moderates out of the insurgency and carving out havens for potential terrorist plots against the United States.

The accelerating U.S. national security threat is leading the administration to take a fresh look at previously shelved ideas, including more robust assistance to Western-backed rebels.

They are also are looking at newer, more far-reaching options, including drone strikes on extremists and more forceful action against Assad, whom President Barack Obama told to leave power 30 months ago.

Obama's top aides plan to meet at the White House before the week's end to examine options, according to administration officials. They weren't authorized to talk publicly on the matter and spoke only on condition of anonymity.

“We have to examine what the alternatives some might be proposing are and whether they're in our national security interest,” White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters Tuesday. He expressed concern about stepped-up intervention leading to “unintended consequences.”

For all the talk about policy changes, American officials remain hampered by the same constraints that have stymied the U.S. response throughout the three-year civil war, including concern that lethal assistance could end up in the hands of extremists. And then there also is Obama's own distaste for military action.

After more than a decade of fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, Obama has desperately sought to avoid embroiling the U.S. in another deadly and inconclusive war. He backed away last year from his threat to take military action in response to a Syrian chemical weapons attack when it became clear Congress would not vote its approval.

Even options short of direct strikes pose difficulties.

Grounding Assad's air force by enforcing a no-fly zone in Syria would most likely require a large-scale attack on the military's advanced air defense systems. Military support for the opposition continues in the form of small weapons and ammunition. But proposals for sending more powerful weaponry still raise fears that it could fall into the hands of extremist rebel groups, which are melding with moderate rebels.

The U.S. remains opposed to Saudi Arabian deliveries of shoulder-launched, anti-aircraft missiles because of the potential risk to commercial aircraft.

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