Pentagon: Options in Syria are all hard

Leon Panetta, Carl Levin, Martin Dempsey
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, center, followed by Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., left, and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey, arrives on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, March 7, 2012, to testify before the committee's hearing on the crisis in Syria.
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

(CBS News) For almost a year, Syria's dictator, Bashar al-Assad has been waging war on his own people to crush a popular uprising. More than 7,000 civilians have died.

His army has buried Homs, a city of more than a million people, in artillery fire; House after house destroyed, people often killed in their own homes. The city fell last Thursday.

But it was only Wednesday that Assad allowed a U.N. representative into Homs to see the devastation. There was almost nobody there. Most of the survivors had fled. Human rights activists accuse the regime of covering up the evidence of atrocities.

On Wednesday, for the first time, the Obama administration said it's looking into the possibility of using force to stop Assad.

CBS News correspondent David Martin reports that, with the Syrian army's assault on the opposition gathering steam, President Obama has directed the Pentagon to begin preliminary planning for what had once been all but ruled out: military intervention. Joint Chiefs Chairman General Martin Dempsey told the Senate Armed Services Committee the military has provided the White House an estimate of what it would take.

Dempsey said the questions they tried to provide answers for include: "What are the potential missions? What is the enemy order of battle? What are the enemy's capabilities, or potential enemyies? what are the troops we have available and how much time?"

Defense officials say that to protect civilians from the Syrian army would require tens of thousands of troops occupying parts of Syria and a sustained air campaign that would dwarf last year's operation in Libya.

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"They have approximately five times more air defense, more sophisticated air defense systems, than existed in Libya, covering one-fifth of the terrain," said Dempsey.

To hear Dempsey and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta tell it, everything about Syria is many times more difficult than Libya. The logistics of providing arms to the opposition is just one example.

"Here you've got triple the problem because there are so many diverse groups that are involved," Panetta said.

"There are approximately 100 groups that we've identified as part of the opposition, rough number," Dempsey said.

There is also a very valid concern that arms could end up in the hands of terrorist groups known to be operating in Syria.

"If we provide arms in Syria, we have to have some sense that they aren't going to just automatically going to wind up going to Hezbollah, going to Hamas, going to al Qaeda," Panetta said.

The administration is more likely to provide non-lethal aid, such as radios, to the opposition. But as one defense official said, "radios won't stop tanks."

It is still a long-shot that the U.S. will get involved. Panetta said that the U.S. would get involved as part of a coalition, and that appears unlikely to form at the moment. For now, it appears the Obama administration is only doing its homework.

  • David Martin

    David Martin is CBS News' National Security Correspondent.