The White House and Pentagon remain reluctant to get involved in Syria's civil strife, but senior defense officials revealed Wednesday they are mulling military strike plans.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said the Obama administration will continue its policy of invoking "diplomatic and political approaches rather than a military intervention." Panetta announced Washington is ready to provide $10 million in humanitarian aid to the Syrian people.
Still, the defense chief revealed for the first time that U.S. officials are "reviewing all possible additional steps...including potential military options."
Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey told a Senate panel the Pentagon has crafted military strike plans at the behest of the White House's national security staff. Dempsey described the planning effort as fledgling, saying U.S. officials have not conducted any "detailed planning."
One option is a no-fly zone over Syria, Dempsey said. Another is an operation designed to get humanitarian supplies to besieged civilians. The Joint Chiefs chairman also said officials have examined a mission featuring "limited air strikes" against regime targets, as well as a "maritime interdiction"—presumably to intercept ships carrying weapons and other supplies meant for Assad's forces.
Clearly the Obama administration is reluctant to insert American ground forces onto Syrian soil to stop President Bashar al-Assad's forces from killing more civilians.
Panetta told the Senate Armed Services Committee the administration is keeping "all options on the table." But he immediately highlighted "the limitation of military force—especially U.S. boots on the ground."
U.S. Central Command chief Gen. James Mattis said Tuesday that if Washington intervenes militarily, a "significant commitment of resources" would be required for some time.
Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, in a February 2011 speech to Army cadets at West Point warned against sustained stability operations in the Middle East the require large numbers of U.S. ground forces. "In my opinion," Gates said, "any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should "have his head examined."
To that end, "a longer-term campaign would be challenging," Dempsey said Wednesday.
Former military officials and defense analysts have told U.S. News & World Report that a U.S. mission shaped like last year's Libya operation—which included naval and air strikes and limited special operations "boots on the ground"—would be tougher to accomplish in Syria. That's partly because the population is tightly packed, and air strikes aimed at regime forces would also kill many civilians.
Another challenge would come from Syria's landscape, which lacks suitable terrain from which U.S. forces could distribute military and humanitarian aid to opposition forces, Mattis said Tuesday. Mountain ranges, which Syria lacks, would provide a natural buffer between a distribution point and regime forces, for instance.
Plus, Dempsey and Mattis say the Syrian military is better-equipped and more capable than was Libya's military. For example, Syria's air defense systems are "approximately five times more sophisticated" than were Libya's, Dempsey said.
Assad regime officials have positioned those platforms in and around the nation's major population centers, Pentagon officials say. That means "there would be some collateral damage" if American war planes attempted to take them out in the opening stages of a military operation, Panetta said.
Some GOP hawks, like Sen. John McCain of Arizona, continue hammering the administration for its reluctance to intervene. On Wednesday, he told Panetta in typical blunt fashion: "We're not leading, Mr. Secretary." Just moments before, The United Nations says over 7,500 civilians have died in the fighting. McCain asked the Pentagon leaders if there is a point the administration would get involved. McCain fumed: "How many more have to die, 10,000 more?"
Administration officials are quick to note Syria is not Libya, where air and naval strikes were easier. What's more, administration officials are holding by an assessment that al Qaeda elements are included in the groups fighting Assad's regime.
U.S. estimates say there are more than 100 opposition groups involved in the deadly classes. Dempsey said al Qaeda fighters are "there trying to exploit" the situation.
McCain rejects that notion, saying he has met Syrian opposition leaders who attended the University of Alabama.
"They are not fighting and dying because they are Muslim extremists,” McCain said.