By Barbara Starr
Under pressure from Democrats and Republicans, the Joint Staff of the Pentagon and the U.S. Central Command have updated potential military options for intervention in Syria that could see American forces - if ordered - doing everything from bombing Syrian airfields to flying large amounts of humanitarian aid to the region, a senior U.S. military official said.
The first public discussion of the updated options could come soon as Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Gen. Martin Dempsey, the Joint Chiefs chairman, are scheduled to testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee next week.
The military official emphasized the options are for planning and there is no indication President Barack Obama is about to order any military action.
A senior administration official confirmed that the national security staff of the White House has been briefed on the updated planning, but emphasized that it does not differ from what already has been looked at by the administration.
"We've been saying for quite some time now, we are constantly reviewing every possible option that could help end the violence and accelerate a political transition," the administration official told CNN.
By Tim Lister
Much of the focus of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s appearance on Capitol Hill Wednesday was on whether her department failed to appreciate and respond to the risks that led to the Benghazi attack - and whether it had the resources to confront such risks.
And, of course, on whether in the immediate aftermath, the administration characterized the attack candidly and accurately.
But the hearings also illustrated how the United States is scrambling to catch up with new realities in North Africa – and how it faces a long struggle in a new arena of instability.
Clinton acknowledged that “the Arab revolutions have scrambled power dynamics and shattered security forces across the region.”
Looking back to her confirmation as secretary of state four years ago, Clinton said, “I don’t think anybody thought [Egyptian President Hosni] Mubarak would be gone, [Libya’s Moammar] Gadhafi would be gone, [Tunisian leader Zine El Abidine] Ben Ali would be gone.”
Sources tell CNN’s Barbara Starr that the Pentagon and US intelligence services are consulting with Syria's neighbors Turkey, Israel and Jordan about what to do if it looks like Assad is about to launch a chemical attack on his own people.
A senior US official says all the allies are now considering how to keep Syria from putting chemical warheads on its artillery or missiles.
But an airstrike to stop it, could cause havoc if residual chemicals escape.
What if Assad leaves? US officials say they have long been planing for 'the day after Assad" – such as training Jordanian troops to provide security – but for now they just hope Syrians troops will keep those chemical weapons under lock and key.
By Jamie Crawford with reporting from Jill Dougherty, Elise Labott and Pam Benson
The United States is closely watching how rebel forces operate inside Syria, and what their end objectives might be as the Obama administration weighs whether or not to provide arms to the Syrian opposition.
"Will providing arms to the opposition convince the people who support [Syrian President] Bashar al-Assad, in many cases because they are afraid of their own existence, or will it simply lead to more fighting - that is the question that we are considering," Robert Ford, the U.S. ambassador to Syria, said during a panel discussion in Washington on Thursday on the crisis in Syria.
"Arms are not a strategy, arms are a tactic," Ford said about the deliberation the administration is undertaking on the question, and that a "military solution" is not the best path forward for Syria.
"The president has never taken the provision of arms off the table," he said. "And so, as we think about our policy of sending arms or not, and today we do not, we want to make sure that tactic plays into and helps us achieve a strategy of enabling the Syrian people to reach a political solution."
By Jill Dougherty
U.S. officials are relieved now that Syria's disjointed opposition has finally succeeded in creating a united front.
"What happened over the weekend was huge," a senior administration official told CNN. "I think it's fair to say that most of us were pessimistic, but the opposition did it. They have a long way to go, but this was a major step forward."
Nevertheless, the official admitted: "We are cautiously optimistic at best."
The United States has been pressing the opposition to unite and officials now say the Obama administration is urging the new National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces to quickly form a technical working group with which it can coordinate assistance.
By Suzanne Kelly, Pam Benson and Elise Labott
U.S. intelligence believes that assailants connected to al Qaeda in Iraq were among the core group that attacked the diplomatic mission in Benghazi, a U.S. government official told CNN.
That would represent the second al Qaeda affiliate associated with the deadly September 11 attack that killed U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.
Previously, intelligence officials said there were signs of connections to al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the North African wing of the terror group.
The revelation that members of al Qaeda in Iraq are suspected of involvement in the Libya attack comes at a time when there is a growing number of fighters from that group also taking part in the Syrian civil war.
The tightrope Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati has been walking on neighboring Syria has gotten more difficult in the past year.
In an interview with CNN's Elise Labott this week at the United Nations General Assembly, Mikati made it clear that his country must stay neutral in the Syrian civil war.
He has had to avoid criticism of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, which he believes would upset the political balance in Lebanon.
"We are saying, please, we don't want to interfere," Mikati told Labott. "We cannot do anything. Don't ask from Lebanon things that are beyond our capability to do."
But at the same time, Lebanon will not tolerate the kind of continued violation of its sovereignty by Syria. Mikati has adopted a policy of "disassociation" when it comes to Syria and was quite frank he has to look out for Lebanon first. FULL POST
Here is the latest reporting from CNN's Jomana Karadsheh in Tripoli, Libya:
A senior Libyan official who spoke on the condition of anonymity told Karadsheh that U.S. and Libyan officials have held a series of meetings to "assess what went wrong" in Beghazi that resulted in the death of the U.S. Ambassador and three other Americans at the U.S. consulate there. The meetings included: security experts; U.S. officials, some who had flown into the country from the U.S.; the Libyan Prime Minister elect; the General National Congress President along with other Libyan officials.
Following the attack, the senior Libyan official said "we felt, assumed and suspected" that there would be an increase in U.S. drone activity over parts of eastern Libya and were very concerned that the US administration could take military action. He said they worried the Obama administration would be "pushed to do something crazy" by domestic political considerations. He says that would have been "very unacceptable" and GNC head Mohamed Al-Magariaf had spoken with the White House "to contain the situation."
The official said the Libyan officials urged the Americans to work with them "in full partnership" because any military action during this "fragile and sensitive situation" would give the two main threats to the state- the extremists and Gadhafi loyalists– "an excuse." Because of the "strategic objectives for both of us and understanding our enemy," the official said any military action would create "absolute chaos." In other words any precipitous military action on the part of the US would be counter-productive, hit no-one of any value but further embolden extremists in eastern Libya and make the area ungovernable.
By Jamie Crawford
President Barack Obama offered a more cautious and nuanced take than in recent memory of the United States and Egyptian relationship following an assault on the American embassy in Cairo this week.
"I don't think that we consider them an ally, but we don't consider them an enemy," Obama said Wednesday in an interview with the Spanish language network Telemundo. "They are a new government that is trying to find its way," he said. "They were democratically elected."
Obama's comments were taken as a possible change in posture toward a country that has enjoyed billions of dollars in U.S. military and economic assistance since the signing of a peace treaty with Israel in 1979 – the linchpin of security in the volatile region.
"I think that we are going to have to see how they respond to this incident," Obama went on to say in the interview. "I think it's still a work in progress. But certainly in this situation, what we're going to expect is that they are responsive to our assistance that our embassy is protected, that our personnel are protected."
CNN Intelligence Correspondent Suzanne Kelly reports on the latest intelligence regarding the deadly attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya and takes a look at the suspects.