Obama Administration to Confront Syria Crisis on Capitol Hill

White House officials are expected to explain how difficult a military mission in Syria would be.

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The Obama administration, after months of carefully worded statements, is sending senior officials to Capitol Hill for hours of testimony about the unrest in Syria. But when they arrive, they will find lawmakers who are all over the place about what-if anything-Washington should do.

President Obama and his top lieutenants have been hammered by congressional proponents of using U.S. military intervention to halt civilian deaths during civil wars. The United Nations estimates the conflict has claimed over 7,500 lives, and some U.S. lawmakers think Washington has a moral imperative to get involved.

Obama and his foreign policy aides say Syrian President Bashar al-Assad must go. But they also contend that Syria is a very different-and more complicated-situation than Libya, where Obama used U.S. air and naval power to help rebels oust Moammar Gadhafi.

[Photo Gallery: The violence in Syria.]

For those reasons, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the administration's current goal is to "focus on how we help the Syrian people." She said officials are working with Syria's neighbors on identifying potential ways to get humanitarian supplies into the war-torn nation.

The Obama administration also is trying to work with Syrian opposition groups "so they get stronger," Clinton told the House Foreign Affairs Committee Wednesday. The administration also is pushing for an Arab League-brokered political settlement, Clinton said.

She did not mention U.S. military intervention, nor any mulling at high levels of getting involved or arming the rebel forces.

Those are the kinds of issues that will be discussed Thursday when Jeffrey Feltman, assistant secretary of state for near eastern affairs, and Robert Ford, Washington's ambassador to Syria, testify before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

U.S. military intervention in Syria will be front-and-center next Wednesday when Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey testify during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing about the ongoing upheaval.

"It's perfectly appropriate for the Secretary of Defense to discuss major national security issues like Syria," says Pentagon Press Secretary George Little. "After all, the Department of Defense houses not just the U.S. military, but also key intelligence agencies. And developments in Syria could affect the security situation in the region, something he keeps a close eye on."

Still, it isn't everyday the sitting Defense Secretary and Joint Chiefs chairman testify about a hot spot in which their forces are not deployed.

"I think the reason they're going is to tell people how difficult military intervention would be," says Larry Korb, a Pentagon official now at the Center for American Progress. Former Defense Secretary Robert "Gates went up before Libya and talked about what would have to be involved there. The last thing Dempsey wants to do is send troops in there."

"The bottom line is they can say, 'It's easier to start a war than finish a war,'" Korb says. "I expect them to say, 'This isn't Libya. Syria has better air defenses, and a better military.'"

[Senators: U.S. Forces at Risk Due to Syrian Chemical Weapons.]

Panetta, Dempsey and the State Department officials likely will hear mixed messages from lawmakers during their time on the Hill.

Mississippi Sen. Roger Wicker told U.S. News & World Report Tuesday that U.S. officials should proceed with caution.

"It's not a simple situation," Wicker said. "We need to be careful about whom we arm," he said, adding he is worried American-supplied weapons might be turned on religious minorities.

But fellow GOP Senator Lindsey Graham says: "We should arm the rebels through the Arab League."

Prominent Democrats on foreign and national security policy issues also are split about what Washington should do.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin of Michigan told U.S. News that he would be reluctant to support a plan to ship arms to opposition forces "without knowing who they're going to ... how we would get the weapons to them and the possible downsides to such a proposal."

But pro-Israel Sen. Joseph Lieberman told reporters Tuesday U.S. officials know plenty about the Syrian rebels.

"I think we ought to be helping [the opposition] with weapons and medical aid," Lieberman said. "The cause is just."

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