Top Pentagon Officials Stress Risks in Syriahttp://www.nytimes.com/2012/
WASHINGTON — The Pentagon’s top two officials said Wednesday that President Obama had asked for preliminary military options to respond to the increasingly violent Syria conflict, but they emphasized the risks and said that the administration still believed that diplomatic and economic pressure was the best way to protect Syrians from the Assad government’s repression.
The appraisal by Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta, in Senate testimony, reflected increased concern about the year-old uprising in Syria, in which more than 7,500 people have been killed, according to United Nations estimates. Their comments also reflected the politicization of the Syria conflict in the United States during a presidential election year. Mr. Obama, who ended the war in Iraq and is moving to do the same in Afghanistan, has expressed reluctance to enter a new military conflict and characterized statements by his Republican adversaries as hawkish.
General Dempsey and Mr. Panetta spoke two days after Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, who lost to Mr. Obama in 2008, became the first senator to call for American airstrikes on Syria as “the only realistic way” to stop what he called a slaughter there. Both General Dempsey and Mr. Panetta faced sharp questions during their testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee from Mr. McCain, who is the panel’s ranking Republican.
Their exchanges came as the conflict in Syria took some striking new turns. The United Nations’ top relief official, Valerie Amos, visited the ravaged Syrian city of Homs — the first inspection there by an independent outside observer since President Bashar al-Assad ordered a military assault of the city’s armed resistance more than a month ago. Syrian activist groups reported ominous signs on Wednesday that Mr. Assad’s forces would now direct their campaign northward to Idlib Province, where the Free Syrian Army, a group composed mostly of army defectors, is challenging his authority.
General Dempsey told senators that the options under review included humanitarian airlifts, naval monitoring, aerial surveillance of the Syrian military and the establishment of a no-fly zone. Specifically, he said that “the president of the United States, through the national security staff, has asked us to begin the commander’s estimate,” a term for an initial assessment of a situation and potential courses of military action.
Mr. Panetta, who spoke alongside General Dempsey, told the committee that military review was in the earliest stages. “We have not done the detailed planning because we are waiting for the direction of the president to do that,” he said. Modern commanders in chief have routinely asked for military options during foreign crises, and the Pentagon as part of its daily business draws up contingency plans for a wide range of potential conflicts.
Mr. Panetta and General Dempsey spent much time explaining the difficulties of military action. Mr. Panetta said intervention could expedite a civil war in the country and make an explosive situation worse. He said bluntly that the Obama administration recognized “that there are limitations of military force, especially with U.S. boots on the ground.” He added that “it doesn’t make sense” for the United States to act alone, without a coalition of allies, as was the case in Libya.
Ms. Amos, the United Nations under secretary general and emergency relief coordinator, arrived in Syria for a two-day visit to assess the country’s relief needs. She accompanied a team from the Syrian Arab Red Crescent into the Baba Amr neighborhood of Homs, which had suffered enormous destruction and where activists have reported hundreds of civilian deaths.
She made no statement about what she observed, but a spokeswoman at the United Nations, Amanda Pitt, said that Ms. Amos had told her via telephone that the neighborhood was “pretty devastated,” largely devoid of people and punctuated by occasional gunfire.
“She wanted to go to Homs and Baba Amr to try and get a sense for herself of the impact of the fighting — and of the lack of humanitarian access — and to get there as soon as possible,” Ms. Pitt said in an e-mail. She said Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem of Syria, her host, had told Ms. Amos that she “would be able to go wherever she wanted.”
The state-run Syrian Arab News Agency made no mention of Ms. Amos’s visit to Homs, but reported her arrival in Syria earlier on Wednesday and quoted Mr. Moallem as saying that the government was trying to respond to emergency civilian needs “despite the burdens it faces because of the unfair sanctions imposed by some Arab and Western countries on Syria.”...