U.S. defense officials are resisting calls from some lawmakers for American military intervention in Syria to end bloodletting and hasten the departure of President Bashar al-Assad.
Echoing President Barack Obama a day earlier, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta argued against a rush to launch military strikes against Syrian government forces. Panetta told the Senate Armed Services Committee that Syria’s bloody suppression of its people must and will end, but added the following: “Unfortunately, this terrible situation has no simple answers," he said.
The hearing featured a long, tense exchange between Panetta and Republican Senator John McCain, who urged prompt U.S.-led air strikes against the Syrian military. McCain reminded the defense secretary of the Obama administration’s stated policy of preventing mass atrocities.
Senator McCain: “Would you agree that mass atrocities have occurred and are occurring in Syria?”
Secretary Panetta: “I do not think there is any question that we are experiencing mass atrocities there.”
Senator McCain: “How many more have to die? Ten thousand more? Twenty thousand more? How many more?”
Secretary Panetta responded that, unless the United States acts unilaterally, something President Obama has ruled out, important groundwork must be laid before a military campaign can go forward. “We have to build a multi-lateral coalition. We have got to be able to work at that. It is not that easy. Can it happen today, can it happen now? No, it is going to take some work. It is going to take some time. But when we do it, we will do it right," he said.
Independent Senator Joe Lieberman argued time is running short. “I think if we do not get the international community together in a ‘coalition of the willing’ soon, we are going to look back and say we not only did not do the right thing morally to stop innocents from being killed, we missed an extraordinary strategic opportunity to strengthen our position and the position of free people in the Middle East," he said.
Also testifying was the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey. Dempsey said the United States could help enforce a no-fly zone over Syria and distribute humanitarian assistance. He said Syria possesses five times the air defense capability that Libya had last year, protecting roughly one-fifth as much territory. The general also noted Syria possesses far greater stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons.