Persistent violence in Syria and Egypt has sharply divided senior advisers in the Obama administration over a moral dilemma: How far should the US 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 UN estimates, has already killed more than 100,000.
Pentagon leaders, including defence secretary Chuck Hagel and Gen Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have argued for moderation in the US response. They say cutting off aid to Egypt would threaten key national security agreements and could rattle the peace between Egypt and Israel.
Others in the administration have countered that the US 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 weapons shipment to Egypt.
The lack of a unified position — both within the Obama administration and in Congress — is giving President Barack Obama time and space for his cautious approach. But that is riling those who believe that the US should put stronger pressure on Egypt's military and take military action against Assad's government.
Obama on Friday told CNN called the latest possible chemical weapons attack in Syria a "big event of grave concern," but he said the idea that the US can solve Syria's civil war is "overstated."
As for Egypt, he said cutting off aid to that country "may not reverse what the interim government does." He said the U.S. must be "very careful" about being seen as aiding and abetting actions that run contrary to the country's values.
The next military weapons shipments for Egypt are scheduled for next month — including 10 Apache helicopters at a cost of about $500 million.
According to senior US officials, however, the administration is expected to delay the delivery of Apache helicopters. That move, which may not come until next week, would be the second major weapons sale put on hold by the US in an effort to pressure the Egyptian military to halt the bloodshed and take steps toward a more peaceful transition to democracy.
Meanwhile, the latest concerns about chemical weapons in Syria prompted a meeting of Obama's national security team.
Top military leaders have cautioned against even limited action in Syria. Dempsey, the Joint Chiefs chairman, said in a letter this week to a congressman that the US military is clearly capable of taking out Assad's air force and shifting the balance of the war toward the armed opposition. But such an approach would plunge the US into the war without offering any strategy for ending what has become a sectarian fight, he added.