WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration worked Monday to preserve thinning hopes for a political deal that could end the Syrian civil war and to hold off rising pressure from lawmakers and Syria's Arab neighbors for more direct U.S. involvement.
A failed assassination attempt against Syria's prime minister in the capital, Damascus, suggested that rebels are increasingly bringing the 2-year-old conflict to the doorstep of President Bashar Assad. Both sides are engaged in a military standoff in much of the country, and the capital city is presumed to be the prize that would signal military victory for either side.
Syrian Prime Minister Wael al-Halki narrowly escaped an assassination attempt when a car bomb exploded near his convoy Monday morning as it moved through an upper-class neighborhood of Damascus. State television said Mr. Halki was unharmed, but at least nine people were killed and 17 injured.
Government officials in Syria said the attack showed that the rebels are not interested in negotiations.
In Washington, Secretary of State John Kerry sought to persuade Lakhdar Brahimi, the envoy to Syria for the United Nations and the Arab League, to remain on the job. Mr. Brahimi has been on the verge of quitting for weeks, given the failure of efforts to foster diplomacy inside and outside Syria. His departure would erode the Obama administration's main diplomatic argument that a "political settlement" can be reached.
On Monday, Arab foreign ministers also met with Mr. Kerry in a session led by Qatar. Qatar is one of two Persian Gulf nations known to be arming the Syrian opposition, and several other nations have quietly concluded that Islamist extremists are among the recipients.
Several of Syria's Arab neighbors, led by close U.S. ally Jordan, are lobbying for a more forceful U.S. role in Syria. There is no consensus about what the United States should do, however. Options include giving heavier gear to the rebels, providing protection for refugees or fighters with missile batteries or aircraft, or authorizing precision airstrikes to destroy chemical weapons stockpiles or key air defenses.
The U.S. announcement last week that Syrian forces have probably used sarin, a nerve agent, has fueled bipartisan congressional demands for better protection of Syrian refugees or more help to the rebels. Lawmakers who have been most critical of the administration's stance, including Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said the use of chemical weapons crosses the threshold that President Barack Obama had set for U.S. intervention.
Mr. Obama, however, has insisted on additional proof to buttress the U.S. intelligence assessments. Intelligence agencies concluded with moderate to high confidence that Syria used the internationally banned weapons, but they cited potential problems with evidence, officials familiar with the findings said. The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the assessments.
The White House has said only that the findings were reached with "varying degrees of confidence."
"There is much more to be done to verify conclusively that the red line that the president has talked about has been crossed," White House press secretary Jay Carney said Monday.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, meanwhile, renewed an appeal for Syria to allow U.N. chemical weapons experts into the country, saying that on-site inspections are essential to "establish the facts and clear up all the doubts" about any use of chemical weapons.
Mr. Ban's remarks followed allegations by several countries, including Britain and France, that the Syrian government is likely to have used chemical weapons in recent months.
The main agenda for Mr. Kerry's meeting with the Arab League was to follow up on his efforts to jump-start Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. He wants to use a dormant Arab League peace proposal as one template.
"The purpose is to encourage [Mr. Brahimi] to continue in his good work," State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said before Mr. Kerry's private meeting with Mr. Brahimi.
The veteran Algerian diplomat has gotten almost nowhere in his mission to unite the United States and Russia around a transition plan for Syria. Washington and Moscow blame each other for the impasse. Mr. Brahimi told U.N. diplomats last week that his efforts to bring Syrians together have fared even worse.