Secretary of State John Kerry said the Obama administration is evaluating ways to reduce the bloodshed in Syria, a day after Pentagon officials revealed a rift with the White House about arming the rebels.
“There is too much killing, there’s too much violence, and we obviously want to try to find a way forward,” Kerry said today, without offering any details of what’s being discussed.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who is retiring, and Army General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in congressional testimony yesterday that they supported a plan last year to send arms to the Syrian rebels advanced by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and David Petraeus, who was director of the Central Intelligence Agency at the time.
President Barack Obama instead approved the current policy that provides humanitarian aid for civilians and non-lethal military equipment, such as communications gear, to the rebels.
In remarks at the State Department, Kerry said he doesn’t know what was discussed in the past and that “this is a new administration now, the president’s second term. I’m the new secretary of state, and we’re going forward from this point.”
“We’re taking a look at what steps, if any — diplomatic, particularly — might be able to be taken in an effort to try to reduce that violence and deal with the situation,” Kerry said, following talks with Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird.
He said “serious questions” are raised by the involvement with the rebels of terrorist groups, such as the al-Nusra Front and al-Qaeda in Iraq, and the U.S. also is “deeply concerned” about Assad’s stockpiles of chemical weapons.
Panetta and Dempsey told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee that they had favored arming the Syrian rebels seeking to topple the Syrian regime headed by Bashar al- Assad.
“That was our position,” Panetta said to Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. “I do want to say, senator, that obviously there were a number of factors that were involved here that ultimately led to the president’s decision to make it non-lethal.”
U.S. officials have said that sending American weapons risks increasing the bloodshed in Syria, where the United Nations estimates more than 60,000 people have been killed in the two-year uprising. They have said that the arms provided may wind up in the hands of Islamic extremists.
The president “overruled the senior leaders of his own national security team, who were in unanimous agreement that America needs to take greater action to change the military balance of power in Syria,” Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona said in a statement after the hearing.
“I urge the president to heed the advice of his former and current national-security leaders and immediately take the necessary steps, along with our friends and allies, that could hasten the end of the conflict in Syria,” McCain said.
White House press secretary Jay Carney said today that Obama and his national security team have been “very careful” in weighing the dangers.
“We don’t want any weapons to fall into the wrong hands and potentially further endanger the Syrian people, our ally Israel or the United States,” Carney told reporters. “We also need to make sure any support we are providing actually makes a difference in pressuring Assad.”
There’s no shortage of weapons in Syria, Carney said, so the U.S. has “focused our efforts on helping the opposition to become stronger, more cohesive and more organized.”
Obama previously had expressed concern about arms making their way into the hands of Islamic radicals.
“We have seen extremist elements insinuate themselves into the opposition, and you know, one of the things that we have to be on guard about — particularly when we start talking about arming opposition figures — is that we are not indirectly putting arms in the hands of folks that would do Americans harm, or do Israelis harm or otherwise engage in, in actions that are detrimental to our national security,” Obama said in a November news conference.
The White House national security staff also balked at sending arms to the rebels because they thought it would undercut Obama’s election-year message that he was extricating the U.S. from costly overseas military ventures, according to two officials who were involved in the policy debate. Both asked not to be identified because they weren’t authorized to talk publicly about the issue.
U.S. intelligence agencies identified several rebel groups that favored replacing the Assad regime with a broad coalition of opposition factions until democratic elections could be held, the officials said. Yet there was no guarantee that weapons supplied by the U.S. or its allies wouldn’t end up with Sunni extremists with ties to al-Qaeda’s Iraqi affiliate, they said.
Despite that risk, the officials said, the White House’s refusal to consider bolstering moderate rebel groups opened the door for Sunni extremist organizations such as the al-Nusra Front to seize the leading role in the battle. They said that also may mean an increased likelihood that a radical Islamist regime in Damascus could threaten Israel, destabilize Jordan, and strengthen Sunni radicals in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and elsewhere.