May 25, 2013
Pentagon backed plan for US to arm Syrian rebels
WASHINGTON — Pentagon leaders told Congress yesterday that they had supported a recommendation to arm Syrian rebels promoted by the State Department and CIA but which President Barack Obama ultimately decided against.
Obama’s government has limited its support to non-lethal aid for the rebels who, despite receiving weapons from countries like Qatar and Saudi Arabia, are poorly armed compared to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s army and loyalist militias.
Senator John McCain, a Republican from Arizona, has championed greater US involvement and chided the Obama administration at a hearing, asking Pentagon leaders: “How many more have to die before you recommend military action?”
He then pressed Defence Secretary Leon Panetta and General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the US military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, about whether they backed the recommendation by the State Department and CIA chiefs last year to arm the rebels. Panetta and Dempsey said they had backed the recommendation, and later in the hearing, the defence secretary elaborated.
“Obviously there were a number of factors that were involved here that ultimately led to the president’s decision to make (the aid) non-lethal,” Panetta said, adding he supported Obama’s decision.
The comments were the first public acknowledgement of Pentagon support to arm the rebels since the New York Times reported on February 2 about the plan developed last summer by Hillary Clinton and David Petraeus, who have since left their jobs at the State Department and CIA, respectively.
The questions about US policy in Syria came during a hearing focusing on Libya, with Pentagon leaders defending their response to last year’s deadly attack on the US consulate in Benghazi.
Panetta and Dempsey said US forces could not have reached Libya in time to prevent the deaths of the US ambassador and three other Americans on September 11, 2012, and assured that Obama was kept in the loop. Panetta also stressed that it was also not the US military’s responsibility to be able to immediately respond anywhere in the world to a crisis. There was no intelligence about a specific plan to attack the consulate, he and Dempsey noted.
“The United States military... is not and, frankly, should not be a 911 service capable of arriving on the scene within minutes to every possible contingency around the world,” he said.
It was likely to be Panetta’s last hearing before he retires, and despite a sometimes accusatory tone from lawmakers, Republicans and Democrats praised his work as Pentagon chief and, previously, as CIA director.