Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said the United States is reviewing potential military action to ease the crisis in Syria even as he cautioned that the opposition and international support aren’t unified enough to intervene now.
The Obama administration is consulting with other nations and considering “an array of non-lethal assistance,” Panetta told the Senate Armed Services Committee in Washington today. He also cited U.S. concerns over Syria’s stockpile of chemical weapons, which he said is “100 times worse than what we dealt with in Libya.”
Panetta and Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, resisted calls from some Republicans for immediate military involvement.
“What doesn’t make sense is to take unilateral action right now,” Panetta told the panel. “Before I recommend that we put our sons and daughters in uniform in harm’s way, I’ve got to make very sure that we know what the mission is, I’ve got to be very sure that we know whether we can achieve that mission and at what price and whether or not it will make matters better or worse.”
The hearing demonstrated the pressure on the Obama administration to find a way to ease the crisis in Syria, where the United Nations estimates violence has claimed more than 7,500 lives. Government forces shelled protesters in Damascus suburbs as U.N. envoys arrived in the capital seeking to protect humanitarian-aid efforts and end Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s yearlong crackdown on opponents.
‘Americans Should Lead’
“Americans should lead in this,” said Arizona Sen. John McCain, the top Republican on the panel. “Mass atrocities are going on.”
After McCain called on Monday for U.S.-led airstrikes to create civilian safe havens, other lawmakers disagreed. House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, described U.S. intervention as premature “until there’s a clear direction as to what’s happening there.”
Sen. Joe Lieberman, a Connecticut independent, was among committee members who cited the potential “strategic benefit” to the United States of toppling the Assad regime because of its links to Iran. American intervention would help unify the international community and the opposition, he said.
‘Right Thing Morally’
“The clock is running,” Lieberman said. Failure to act may lead to regret that “not only we didn’t do the right thing morally to stop innocents from being killed, we missed an extraordinary strategic opportunity to strengthen our position” in the Middle East, he said.
Dempsey said the United States has the right to take military action either with the consent of the nation involved, in its own national defense or with a U.N. Security Council resolution.
“We have to have some legal basis,” Dempsey said, adding that he also would advise taking any action in concert with a coalition. “We’ve shown that that produces an enduring outcome.”
The Defense Department’s review has been limited to sketching potential options for President Barack Obama rather than more detailed planning, Dempsey said. Any sustained air campaign against Assad’s forces would require an extended effort to eliminate his air defenses, which are far more extensive than were those of Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, Dempsey said.
“We do have an estimate based on a gaming model on how long it would take to do that,” considering the size and sophistication of their air defenses, Dempsey said. “It would be an extended period of time and a great number of aircraft.”
No ‘Simple Solution’
Obama said Tuesday that unilateral U.S. action would be a mistake. Panetta echoed that comment in his remarks today and said “there is no simple or quick solution to this crisis.”
“While the opposition is fighting back and military defections and desertions are on the rise, the Syrian regime continues to maintain a strong military,” he said.
Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis, head of the U.S. Central Command, said Tuesday that Assad, drawing support from neighboring Iran, will remain in power “for some time.” The conflict “will get worse before it gets better,” Mattis said in testimony to the Senate committee.
Iran is supplying its neighbor with arms such as rocket-propelled grenades and anti-tank weapons, Dempsey said. Russia has provided higher-level weapons systems, including air defenses, he said.
U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told the same committee Feb. 16 that Syria has an “extensive network” of chemical weapons installations and “they appear to be secure.”
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