Pentagon: We'll be ready if needed for Syria
United States Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, center, gestures while speaking during a round table of NATO Defense Ministers at NATO headquarters in Brussels on April 18, 2012. / AP Photo/Virginia Mayo
(AP) WASHINGTON - The U.S. military is working on additional ways to try to halt the unending violence in Syria, but diplomacy remains the foremost option, Pentagon leaders told Congress on Thursday.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, outlined the steps the United States is taking to pressure the regime of President Bashar Assad, including direct non-lethal support to the opposition such as communications equipment and emergency humanitarian assistance of $25 million. But the two made clear that unilateral military action is far from a solution.
"There is no silver bullet," Panetta told the House Armed Services Committee. "At the same time, the situation is of grave consequence to the Syrian people."
In a bipartisan response, both the chairman of the committee and the top Democrat cautioned against the Obama administration opting for military force to stop 13 months of bloodshed and violence that has devastated cities such as Homs, left thousands dead and tens of thousands displaced.
"I am not recommending U.S. military intervention, particularly in light of our grave budget situation, unless the national security threat was clear and present," said Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon, R-Calif., the committee's chairman. "Nevertheless, these reflections lead me to wonder what the United States can do to stem the violence and hasten President Assad from power."
Rep. Adam Smith of Washington State, the panel's ranking Democrat, said the United States should support the Syrian people "but we must be extremely cautious as we discuss the potential for the use of military force."
Their comments highlighted the split in Congress on military action. Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee and President Barack Obama's 2008 presidential rival, has been outspoken in calling for military airstrikes against Syria. He has complained that Obama has taken too soft a stand against Assad and his brutal crackdown on his own people.
Panetta and Dempsey were updating the committee on security in Syria. Dempsey said in that so far, the military's role has been in sharing information with regional partners. But Dempsey also said the military will be ready if other options are needed.
With rebel forces poorly armed and disorganized, efforts to pay them by Arab Gulf states failing, and sectarian divisions looming in Syria, the U.S. and its allies seem prepared to leave Assad where he is. Even if he could be ousted, the near future in Syria could involve civil war among ethnic groups now under Assad's boot, or a slow and bloody war with rebels or proxy fighters armed from the outside.
The U.S. has edged toward supplying the rebels with communications gear and other nonlethal aid but has ruled out either a military assault or a supply of heavy weaponry for rebel forces.
"We are at a crucial turning point," U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Wednesday.
Either a United Nations-brokered cease-fire takes hold "or we see Assad squandering his last chance before additional measures have to be considered," Clinton said.
But even as she implies tougher international intervention, Clinton is not expected to announce a shift in the U.S. stance during a diplomatic huddle on Syria in Paris on Thursday.
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