The official from the State Department told The Daily Telegraph that while the White House wants to exhaust all its diplomatic options, the debate in Washington has shifted away from diplomacy and towards more robust action since Russia and China blocked a United Nations resolution condemning Syria.
The Pentagon’s Central Command has begun a preliminary internal review of US military capabilities in the region, which one senior official called a “scoping exercise” that would provide options for the president if and when they were requested.
The White House said it was talking to allies about holding a “Friends of Syria” meeting in the near future and was considering delivering humanitarian aid to affected areas in the country.
“We are, of course, looking at humanitarian assistance to the Syrian people, and we have for some time. We’re consulting with our international partners, and we anticipate this being one of the focuses of the discussions that we’ll have,” said Jay Carney, the White House press secretary.
Influential figures in Washington have recommended setting up a “humanitarian corridor” or safe haven, while others, such as Senator John McCain, have said it was time to consider arming the rebels of the Free Syrian Army.
Any plan to supply aid or set up a buffer zone would involve a military dimension to protect aid convoys or vulnerable civilians.
“The decision-makers have not determined we are at a point of no return,” the senior official told The Daily Telegraph. “There is still a window, it is just that that window is closing.
“I don’t know how much longer it is going to go on before people start looking at what else is on the table, because nothing is off the table.
“We definitely don’t want to militarise the situation. If it’s avoidable we are going to avoid it. But increasingly it looks like it may not be avoidable,” he said.
“There is always hope that this can be solved without it turning into a full-scale civil war and without the use of force, but it really involves Bashar al-Assad receiving the wake-up call.” Any outside military involvement in Syria has been regarded as more difficult and more risky than the mission in Libya.
It has a complex geography and ethnic mix and is the linchpin of a volatile region. But since the Russian veto at the UN, there is no doubting an extra urgency in the attitude of concerned governments and agencies.
Navi Pillay, the United Nation’s High Commissioner for Human Rights, called for swift action to safeguard Syrians targeted by the security forces.
She stressed the “extreme urgency for the international community to cut through the politics and take effective action to protect the Syrian population”.
An estimated 6,000 people have died since the start of the upheaval that began with protests in March 2011 amid the Arab Spring.
Turkey’s foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, proposed holding a conference “as soon as possible” to “promote international understanding with all countries concerned”. He is due to hold further talks in Washington soon with Hillary Clinton, the US Secretary of State.
Ünal Cevikoz, the Turkish ambassador to Britain, said delivering humanitarian aid could be discussed at the proposed conference, but like the Western powers, he said his country remained against military options, including arming the Free Syrian Army.
He denied reports that discussions on military options between the US and Turkey were already under way.
“Humanitarian aid may become necessary. There is growing scarcity of food that may lead to famine. It is a serious crime not only to kill but to create the conditions of exterminating a city and its people,” he added, referring to the city of Homs, which Mr Assad’s forces have bombarded for five days.
The Turkish initiative would run parallel, he said, to the “Friends of Syria”, but it would aim to bring together a broader range of nations.
“Today we are at a very critical juncture and the international community has to take the initiative and has to move forward with strong messages to the Syrian regime,” said Mr Cevikoz.
Turkey, which has a 560-mile border with Syria, has been at the forefront of international criticism against Damascus and has become a haven for opposition activists. After 11 rounds of sanctions against Syria, the European Union is also discussing further sanctions, including freezing the assets of Syria’s central bank, banning the importation of Syrian phosphates and suspending trade in gold and other gems.
“We’re trying to make things change,” said a senior EU official. “We’re facing a wall, and we have to find a way of climbing over that wall and moving ahead.”
The opposition to Mr Assad has been calling for a humanitarian corridor or buffer zone or a Friends of Syria group for months. The Syrian National Council, the principal opposition body, endorsed military intervention in December.
The Arab League has shown unprecedented initiative in drawing up a plan for democratic transition in Syria. Qatar, the current president of the 22-nation group, is rumoured to be secretly supplying rebels as it did in Libya.
Radwan Ziadeh, a member of the SNC executive, said the US had to take a more prominent role. “Everyone is waiting for signals from Washington,” he said.