US President Barack Obama says he is considering a "limited, narrow" military strike against Syria, a move that many Middle East experts fear could make things even worse.
Syria was bracing for a missile attack as the departure of United Nations weapons inspectors yesterday opened a window for a possible US-led strike. "We are expecting an attack at any moment," a security official said.
Russian President Vladimir Putin broke his silence on the alleged chemical-weapons attack of August 21, urging Obama not to rush into a decision, but to consider whether strikes would be worth the civilian casualties they would inevitably cause.
Putin also questioned whether Syrian government troops should be held responsible.
"In such conditions, to give a trump card to those who are calling for foreign military intervention is foolish nonsense," he said.
Obama's administration claims its intelligence gives firm evidence the regime launched a chemical onslaught that killed 1,429 people, including at least 426 children. But diplomats and other experts worry about a range of unintended consequences a punitive strike might have, from a surge in anti-Americanism that could help bolster Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, to a wider regional conflict.
"Our biggest problem is ignorance; we're pretty ignorant about Syria," said Ryan Crocker, a former ambassador to Syria and Lebanon, who has also served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The US strike could hit Assad's military without fundamentally changing the dynamic in a stalemated civil war. At the same time, few expect that a barrage of cruise missiles would help peace talks.
Given that, the sceptics say it may not be worth the risks.
Diplomats familiar with Assad say there is no way to know how he would respond, and they question what the US would do if he chose to order a chemical strike or other major retaliation against civilians. That would leave the United States to choose between a loss of credibility and a more expansive - and unpopular - conflict, they said.
"So he continues on in defiance - maybe he even launches another chemical attack to put a stick in our eye - and then what?" Crocker said.
Iran's and Syria's defence ministers have threatened to unleash attacks on Israel if Assad were put in danger, while Hezbollah, the Shiite militant group in Lebanon, could retaliate too.
Opposition officials in Damascus said the government had been moving troops, equipment and truckloads of paper files into civilian areas. "We assume that Assad had been doing this to protect his strategic assets from US cruise-missile strikes," said Dan Layman of the Syrian Support Group, which backs the opposition to Assad.
Assad would probably exploit civilian casualties from a strike. "That will completely empty any justification for this" in the eyes of many, said a Western official who observes Syria.
Obama said he appreciated people's scepticism, but "a lot of people think something should be done, but nobody wants to do it", and the United States would send the wrong message to the world if it did nothing.
Additional reporting by Associated Press, Agence France-Presse