WASHINGTON — The nation's top military leader said Wednesday that U.S. armed forces would be ready if called upon to get involved in Syria, but he raised serious concerns about outside extremists and the fate of Syria's chemical and biological weapons.
Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Army Gen. Martin Dempsey and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta offered a cautionary note to the call by the panel's top Republican, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, to launch U.S. airstrikes against President Bashar Assad's regime to end the crackdown on the Syrian people. The United Nations estimates that more than 7,500 people have been killed in Syria and the death toll is more than 100 a day.
"This terrible situation has no simple answers," Panetta told the panel. He later added, "For us to act unilaterally would be a mistake."
The Pentagon chief said the United States is currently focused on isolating the Assad regime diplomatically and politically, arguing that it has lost all legitimacy for killing its own people. He left open the possibility of military action, saying the Obama administration continues to assess the situation and would adjust its strategy as necessary.
Dempsey said among the military options are enforcement of a no-fly zone and humanitarian relief. He said a long-term, sustained air campaign would pose a challenge because Syria's air defenses are five times more sophisticated than Libya's.
"We also need to be alert to extremists, who may return to well-trod ratlines running through Damascus, and other hostile actors, including Iran, which has been exploiting the situation and expanding its support to the regime," Dempsey said. "And we need to be especially alert to the fate of Syria's chemical and biological weapons. They need to stay exactly where they are."
McCain, along with Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., have called for U.S. military involvement.
Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., said there is no consensus on how to get Assad to leave.
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