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Washington Faces Difficult Choices on Syria

As the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and exiled opposition leaders prepare for a second round of peace talks in Geneva on Monday, U.S. officials are seeing a growing terrorism threat and a regional spillover from the conflict in Syria

Washington has been pushing hard for a negotiated end to the nearly three-year long civil war. But expectations are low after the sides failed to make any progress during the previous round of discussions in Geneva.

In the meantime, the fighting has continued increasing pressure on the Obama administration, which has given indications in recent weeks that its view of the conflict may be changing.

The most notable change in tone came in testimony by CIA Director John Brennan and National Intelligence Director James Clapper this past week before the U.S. House of Representatives Intelligence Committee.

"Syria presents a number of challenges to U.S. national security interests in terms of the potential spillover of the fighting inside of Syria to neighboring countries, but also, and increasingly so, concerns on the terrorism front," Brennan told lawmakers.

“We are concerned about the use of Syrian territory by the al-Qaida organization to recruit individuals and develop the capability to be able not just to carry out attacks inside of Syria, but also to use Syria as a launching pad,” he said.

Clapper said the biggest threat stems from “the 7,500 or so foreign fighters from some 50 countries who have gravitated to Syria. Among them are a small group of Af-Pak al-Qaida veterans who have aspirations for external attack, in Europe if not the homeland."

Syrian President Assad has long blamed “terrorists” for the fighting within Syria, the regime using the term to describe anyone aligned with Syria’s opposition groups.

U.S. officials, though, have put the blame on Assad, accusing him of turning Syria into a magnet for jihadists, like the al-Qaida linked Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, which had been affiliated with al-Qaida until a break this week.

Even U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who has pointed repeatedly to a negotiated settlement as the only way to the fighting in Syria, spoke of the changing focus during a panel discussion in Munich that Washington’s attention was shifting.

“Particularly now, we are focusing in on Syria where there are increasing numbers of extremists,” he said. “I think we need to be more assertive about what we are doing."

Critics, who have slammed the U.S. administration for focusing more on process than on policy, see the change in rhetoric as a positive sign but still worry about meddling by countries like Iran, allowed so far to strengthen the Syrian regime.

“You don’t have a counter-terrorism strategy. You don’t have an Iran containment strategy,” said Michael Doran with the Brookings Institution. “Syria is also the issue in the region that all of the other states are responding to and allying on the basis of, so if you don’t have a Syria strategy, you really don’t have a Middle East strategy.”

“We are sitting on the fence and so we have demoralized our allies and we have given more and more confidence to Assad that he can wait us out and that he can win,” he said.

But Doran and others remain skeptical that the U.S. will do much to change course, given the American public weariness after two long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“This is bad foreign policy but it’s not bad domestic policy,” he said.

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