It is a wrenching moment, and American officials say they want to help people like Dayem. Privately, these officials say there is no difference between the situation in Libya, where President Barack Obama authorized air strikes, and the one in Syria, at least in terms of the human-rights calculus. In both cases, as Georgetown University’s Daniel L. Byman, says, “You have a despotic regime that’s slaughtering its own people.”…

In Syria, American officials agree, the cost is too high—militarily, politically, and economically—for the U.S. to make such an investment. Yet, as Joshua Landis, a professor of Middle East studies at University of Oklahoma, points out, the officials who claim that the U.S. is not involved sound disingenuous. The United States has imposed economic sanctions. “Sanctions are a form of warfare,” he adds. “Syrians will begin to starve soon.”

Still, Landis, as well as U.S. military officials, believes that a U.S.-backed military operation is highly unlikely. “Syrian forces go in with their ground forces and cordon off neighborhoods and arrest people and shoot them,” says an official who recently returned from Damascus but was not authorized to speak with a journalist. “You can’t defeat an arrest campaign with F-16’s. You’d have to go in on the ground. Do we have the funding-slash-political will to do this?”