WASHINGTON — Facing questions over U.S. options to stem the bloodshed in Syria, top U.S. military leaders said Tuesday that creating "safe havens" for rebels or imposing a no-fly zone would be extremely difficult because of the Syrian regime's Russian-provided air defense weaponry.
Marine Gen. James Mattis, who commands U.S. forces in the Middle East, also offered a cautionary word to members of the Senate Armed Forces Committee who were advocating direct U.S. assistance to the Syrian rebels, known as the Free Syrian Army, saying that the uprising there is "not necessarily a rush towards democracy."
"It's good to know who you're dealing with," Mattis said, adding that the makeup of the Free Syrian Army remained unclear.
Under questioning from senators including John McCain, R-Ariz., one of the most vocal proponents of U.S. military intervention in Syria, Mattis acknowledged that toppling Syrian President Bashar Assad would thwart Assad's ally Iran — which is currently locked in a confrontation with Western nations over its nuclear program — and al Qaida, whose fighters have taken advantage of the chaos in Syria to stage attacks there.
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Mattis refused to discuss on the record any plans the Pentagon was making but said, "If we were to provide options, whatever they are, to hasten the fall of Assad, it would cause a great deal of discontent in Tehran."
He noted that the bloodshed is bad and could get worse, with Assad appearing willing to use "heavier and heavier weapons" against his own people as he seeks to quash an uprising that began more than a year ago as peaceful protests and has since become extremely militarized.
Mattis said that Syria has substantial chemical and biological weapons capabilities, although U.S. officials haven't specified the size of Assad's arsenal.
While the Obama administration has said it would offer some assistance to rebels based outside Syria, such as humanitarian aid, it has opposed a direct U.S. military role. In a press conference Tuesday, President Barack Obama reiterated that while the situation in Syria was "heartbreaking and outrageous," deploying military assets wasn't on the table right now.
Obama rejected comparisons to Libya, where U.S. airpower played a key role in a NATO campaign against deposed leader Moammar Gadhafi. U.S. officials didn't believe that a military campaign against Syria could be done quickly and effectively.
"To think that somehow there is some simple solution I think is a mistake," Obama said.
Mattis also told the Senate panel that al Qaida's influence in the region was growing, particularly in western Iraq. Just this week, there were reports of 27 Iraqi police executed by al Qaida forces in Anbar province, a former al Qaida hotbed where the U.S.-backed Sunni Awakening movement by tribal leaders helped diminish the terror group several years ago.
Mattis noted that the al Qaida influence in Iraq was again reaching into Baghdad, the capital. During the Iraq war, the Iraq-Syria border was considered porous, and after reports that Iraq's al Qaida affiliate had staged suicide attacks in Syria, there are growing fears that fighters again could flow in either direction across the border.
McCain repeated his calls for U.S. intervention in Syria.
"Military action is now needed, to maintain options for allowing the opposition to flourish," he said, later adding that "there's always a threat of extremism, but the people of this revolution aren't al Qaida."
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