Despite a ruthless crackdown on pro-reform demonstrators, there is no international appetite for a warlike approach to Syria -- a crucial Mideast playmaker with ties to Iran and a say in any eventual Arab peace with Israel.
In contrast with the quick international decision to launch an air campaign in nearby Libya, the United States is responding cautiously to mounting civilian deaths in Syria, preparing steps such as imposing new travel limits and financial penalties on Syrian leaders.
As violence escalated anew Monday, the White House stepped up its condemnation of President Bashar Assad's regime. Late Monday night, the United States urged Americans to leave Syria amid the growing violence and began to draw down its diplomatic presence. But it's still stopping well short of demanding the ouster of a leader whom some Democrats on Capitol Hill had considered a potential reformer and peace broker.
U.S. officials said that Washington has begun drawing up sanctions against Assad, his family and his inner circle to boost pressure on them to halt the repression. Meanwhile, the United States also was conferring with European countries and with the United Nations about options for Syria, where more than 350 people have been killed in weeks of protests and government attempts to quell them.
Monday, thousands of soldiers backed by tanks poured into the city where the 5-week-old uprising began, opening fire indiscriminately on civilians before dawn and killing at least 11 people, witnesses said. Bodies were scattered in the streets. Widespread arrests -- often of men along with their families -- appear to be an attempt to intimidate protesters and set an example for the rest of the country.
The offensive was planned in detail, with electricity, water and mobile phone services cut off and knife-wielding security agents conducting house-to-house sweeps.
President Obama and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan voiced their concerns Monday during a telephone call over what the White House called "the Syrian government's unacceptable use of violence against its own people."
White House press secretary Jay Carney deplored the latest developments in Syria and said that sanctions against the Assad regime were a possible response "to make clear to the Syrian government that we believe it needs to cease and desist from the violence it's been perpetrating against its own citizens."
Assad appears dug in and prepared to risk international condemnation in order to quash dissent. He faces little danger of invasion or attack from outside his borders, largely because Syria's neighbors and Western powers fear the consequences of war or the fall of the Assad family after four decades of iron rule.
Unlike in Libya, there is little evidence of an organized rebel military faction that could take on Assad's forces with help from outsiders. Also unlike in Libya, and even in Egypt, where a longtime ruler fell earlier this spring, what happens in Syria is likely to have a direct effect on Israel, the main U.S. ally in the Middle East.
The crackdown in Syria has ignited debate over whether Israel's interests would be better served by the survival of the Syrian leader or the end of the one of the most despotic regimes in the Mideast.
The bloodshed in Syria is increasingly unnerving Israeli leaders, who are suddenly confronting the possibility of regime change in the neighboring country after years of relative stability.
Israel and its U.S. backers do not want to be seen as opposing the forces of reform sweeping the region -- which have toppled autocratic rulers in Egypt and Tunisia and weakened those in Yemen, Libya, Jordan and Bahrain -- particularly if they deliver a blow to Israel's archenemy, Iran.
Although Syria is despised in Israel for its close alliance with Iran and support for the Iranian proxies Hamas and Hezbollah, the Syrian leadership has meticulously enforced quiet along the countries' shared border and has expressed willingness in the past to talk peace with Israel. There is widespread worry in Israel and Washington that if Assad's regime does not survive, any successor could be far more extreme, Islamist and belligerent.
The Obama administration's move toward targeted sanctions suggests that the president has all but abandoned efforts to engage the Syrian leadership and gently encourage reform and changes in its policies toward Iran and Israel.
Since he took office in 2009, Obama has tried to engage Assad's government and promote reforms. The administration welcomed Turkey's efforts to push backdoor peace talks between Syria and Israel.