U.S. general: Syrian air defense may be problem

In a July 10, 2010 photo Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington before the Senate Armed Services Committee. AP Photo/Alex Brandon

Updated 2:09 p.m.

(CBS/AP) WASHINGTON - The top U.S. commander in the Middle East told senators Tuesday that the advanced air defense weapons Russia has provided to Syria's regime would make it difficult to establish a no-fly zone there as part of an effort to help the rebellion.

Marine Gen. James Mattis, head of U.S. Central Command, declined to detail any military options the Pentagon has developed for action against the regime. But he told the Senate Armed Services Committee that it would take a significant military commitment to create even safe havens in Syria where aid could be delivered, as Sen. John McCain suggested Monday.

Senators repeatedly pressed for options to stem the brutal offensive against the Syrian people by President Bashar Assad's regime. And they questioned Iran's involvement there, as well as Tehran's ongoing efforts to develop nuclear weapons.

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McCain said he is growing angry over the argument that the U.S. and others want to figure out who the Syrian opposition is before providing greater aid to them. A lot of people will die before that happens, he said.

The Obama administration and other international leaders have opposed military intervention in Syria, and instead have pushed instead for increased sanctions.

President Barack Obama at a news conference Tuesday said that unilateral military action by the U.S. against the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad would be a mistake. He said the situation in Syria is more complicated than it was in Libya.

Obama has resisted calls to get drawn into the turmoil in Syria to stop Assad's bloody crackdown on protesters. More than 7,500 people have been killed there.

Obama also said that the international community has not been able to muster a campaign against Syria like the one in Libya that ousted Moammar Gadhafi last year. Russia has blocked a U.N. Security Council resolution against Assad's regime.

Obama's strategy has been to use sanctions and international diplomatic isolation to pressure Assad into handing over power.

On Capitol Hill, Mattis acknowledged that Assad is gaining momentum on the battlefield and will use "heavier and heavier weapons" against his people. Conditions there will get worse before they get better, he said.

He added that if there was a decision to intervene in Syria, Iran would use surrogates to foment violence and back the regime, but would likely try to avoid overt military support.

According to Mattis, Syria has a "substantial" chemical and biological weapons capability and thousands of shoulder-launched missiles. Until now, the U.S. military has largely declined to describe the expanse of weapons that President Bashar Assad's regime has at its disposal.

The prospects of a civil war are rising in Syria, he said, but the "options available to address the situation are extremely challenging."

U.S. officials argue that unlike the military campaign in Libya last year that ousted Moammar Gadhafi, a military campaign in Syria would be far more difficult, would not get the backing of the U.N. Security Council and would be hampered by a less coordinated opposition force. Russia and China have blocked efforts by the Security Council to punish Syria.

Senators also questioned whether sanctions against Iran are working. Mattis said that military action against Iran would only delay efforts there to develop nuclear weapons, and only the Iranian people can force real change there.

Mattis' comments come as the Obama administration meets with Israeli leaders this week to discuss the escalating Iranian threat and the possibility of a pre-emptive strike by Israel.

In other issues, Mattis warned against efforts to scale back the Navy's presence in the embattled region, saying threats from Iran and elsewhere will require more ships and maritime missile defense capabilities.

Against a backdrop of roughly $500 billion in Pentagon budget cuts over the next decade, Mattis said the U.S. must use its Navy and special operations forces to maintain a smaller but still strong military presence in the Middle East as the wars in Iran and Afghanistan end.

"The stacked Iranian threats ... of ballistic missiles, long-range rockets, mines, small boats, cruise missiles and submarines demand stronger naval presence and capability to protect vital sea lines of communication," Mattis said.

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