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McFeatters: It's time for a decision on Syria

A Free Syria's flag is seen next to

A Free Syria's flag is seen next to a poster of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad during a demonstration held in front of the Fatih mosque in Istanbul. (May 24, 2013) Photo Credit: Getty Images

President Barack Obama's preferred strategy on the Syrian civil war was to temporize, providing modest amounts of nonlethal military aid to the rebels, refugee assistance to Turkey and encouragement to Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the rebels' main arms suppliers.

The goal, endorsed by the United States, was to get dictator Bashar al-Assad out, preferably by negotiation but, if not, by force. The strategy worked as long as the rebels were making slow but steady gains.

But the war has started to edge in Assad's favor. The rebels were forced out of a key town, Qusayr, near the border with Lebanon, and government forces have laid siege to the city of Homs, a stronghold that the rebels consider the capital of their revolution.

News accounts say the desperate rebels have resorted to some of the same brutal tactics as the government, including the use of human shields and indiscriminate shelling of civilian areas.

And the war has increasingly taken on a bitter sectarian cast. Assad, his family and most people in his ruling political and military circle are Alawites, an offshoot of the Shiite branch of Islam. The country is three-quarters Sunni, according to the CIA.

The turnabout has come via a mass influx of Iranian-supported Hezbollah forces from Lebanon, armed with long-range artillery and surface-to-surface missiles. They augment the Syrian government's armor and control of the air; Shiite volunteers from Iraq; and the professional guidance of Qassim Suleimani and members of his Iranian Quds force.

The White House has pinned its hopes on an all-parties peace conference that, with Russia, it has been trying to organize in Geneva. But as Assad's hand has grown stronger and the rebels' weaker, neither side is greatly motivated to negotiate. The peace conference presumably would take place sometime before August, but even then it may be too late, according to rebel military commander Gen. Salim Idris. Without additional and better weapons, Idris told The New York Times, "We can't wait until August."

Obama's military and political advisers are said to be sharply divided over arming the rebels and possibly providing air cover for a no-fly zone, actions the president has strongly resisted to date. But support for a more active U.S. role is said to be growing within the White House.

This cautious, deliberative president is running out of time to make up his mind.