Syria is in the midst of a tense, fluid and dangerous time, and the U.S. military stands ready to do whatever mission the president and Congress assign to it, top Defense Department leaders told the House Armed Services Committee April 18.
Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta and Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, repeatedly stressed the situation in Syria is complicated and that no unilateral U.S. action can solve the problem of Bashar Assad’s regime killing its own people.
The Syrian people revolted against Assad beginning last year. Unlike similar revolts in Tunisia and Egypt, this one met the iron fist of the Syrian military.
“Rather than trying to meet the legitimate demands of the people, the regime … turned instead to violence against its own people,” Panetta said. “That violence has been brutal, and it has been devastating. It has put the Syrian people in a desperate and difficult situation. It has outraged the conscience of all good people, and it has threatened stability in a very important part of the world.”
President Barack Obama has said that through his violence against his people, Assad has lost any legitimacy. Administration leaders repeatedly have stressed that Assad should begin the transition to a government that respects the rights of the people.
This will require an international consensus, Panetta said. From every angle, the situation in Syria is enormously complex, he added.
“There is no silver bullet; I wish there was, but there isn’t,” he said. “At the same time, the situation is of grave consequence to the Syrian people. There are many others who are affected by what happens in Syria as well, including Syria’s neighbors – Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, and all nations with a vital interest in the Middle East.”
In his remarks to the committee, Dempsey said the Assad regime should have answered the revolt with real democratic reform. “Instead, the regime responded with brutality,” he said. “Syria’s internal convulsions are having consequences for a region already in turmoil.”
Thousands are fleeing the civil war in Syria, and fighting has spilled over into neighboring countries – most notably in Turkey, where five people were killed in a refugee camp.
The United States has other concerns due to the fighting, such as opportunistic extremists who may seek to exploit the situation, the chairman said. The United States also is concerned about the fate of Syria’s chemical and biological weapons. “They need to stay exactly where they are,” the general said.
At present, Dempsey said, the U.S. military is limited to sharing information regarding Syria with regional partners. “But should we be called on to help secure U.S. interests in other ways, we will be ready,” he added.
Meanwhile, the chairman told the panel, the U.S. military maintains its agile regional and global posture.
“We have solid military relationships with every country on Syria’s border,” he said. “Should we be called, our responsibility is clear: provide the secretary of defense and the president with options, and these options will be judged in terms of their suitability, their feasibility and their acceptability.”