WASHINGTON — Persistent violence in Syria and Egypt has sharply divided senior advisers in the Obama administration over a moral dilemma: How far should the U.S. go to stop the killing when its actions could lead to war with Syria or damage relations with Egypt?
Hundreds have died in Egypt during protests brought on by the military overthrow of President Mohammed Morsi. In Syria, allegations of chemical weapons attacks on civilians by the government of President Bashar Assad come amid reports of hundreds more victims in a 2-year-old civil war that, by U.N. estimates, has already killed more than 100,000.
Pentagon leaders, including Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have argued for moderation in the U.S. response. They say that cutting off aid to Egypt would threaten key national security agreements and could rattle the peace between Egypt and Israel. They suggest that such action would cost the U.S. its leverage and even risk losing access to the Suez Canal and permission for military flights over Egypt.
Others in the administration, among them close advisers in the West Wing, have countered that the U.S. should take more decisive action to curtail the violence in Egypt as well as the sectarian war in Syria. So far, the White House has taken only incremental steps. In that vein, it's expected to announce in the coming days the suspension of another major weapons shipment to Egypt.
The lack of a unified position — both within the Obama administration and on Capitol Hill — is giving President Barack Obama time and space for his cautious approach. But that is riling those who believe that the U.S. should put stronger pressure on Egypt's military and take military action against Assad's government.