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U.S. deeply skeptical about Syria military options

By Caren Bohan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama's administration is exploring options to halt the bloodshed in Syria but is deeply skeptical of military intervention out of fear it could worsen the humanitarian crisis, according to a White House official.

In a briefing with a small group of reporters on Friday, the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, contrasted the situation in Syria with Libya, where a NATO campaign bolstered rebels who eventually toppled Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi last year.

There was a "very viable" military option in Libya that involved stopping the advance of Gaddafi's forces and creating civilian protection zones, but those conditions do not exist in Syria, the official said.

"In Syria, it's a much more difficult environment because you basically have regime security forces that are in many respects intermingled with the population," the White House official said.

"A lot of the catastrophic violence is taking place through artillery, through shelling, through snipers. And for those reasons, there's not simple military options that present themselves," the official said. Part of what concerns the White House is that military intervention might "escalate the humanitarian crisis without solving the problem."

The Obama administration has faced calls from conservative critics, including Republican Senator John McCain, to lead a military intervention in Syria.

The United Nations has said that more than 7,500 people have died in Syria in a nearly year-long crackdown on protesters by the government of President Bashar al-Assad.

"How many additional civilian lives would have to be lost in order to convince you that the military measures of this kind that we are proposing are necessary to end the killing?" McCain asked top U.S. Defense Department officials at a hearing on Wednesday.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, revealed that at Obama's request they had been studying U.S. military options for Syria.

In the hearing on Capitol Hill, both officials emphasized the challenges and complexity of any military action.

Obama called the situation in Syria "heartbreaking and outrageous" at a news conference on Tuesday but said it would be a mistake for the United States to take military action unilaterally.

Working with the international community, the Obama administration wants to consider "all of our possible means of providing assistance to the Syrian people and putting pressure on the Syrian regime," according to the White House official.

The administration hopes that economic sanctions will hasten the collapse of the Assad government. The strategy is to choke off resources to the government with the aim of creating incentives for Syrian security forces and business people "to essentially abandon the regime," the official said.

(Reporting By Caren Bohan; Editing by Vicki Allen)

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