The top Air Force general cast further doubt Thursday over whether the United States will use air strikes to pound Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's forces into submission and drive him from power.
Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz said several key questions about a U.S. military intervention in Syria remain unanswered. U.S. officials, he said, remain unable to determine "what is the objective," what groups compose the opposition that Washington would be joining, and how long would a Syria operation last.
From an operational standpoint, Schwartz appeared to be a chief not yet ready to sign off on a mission that would send his pilots into an uncertain situation.
"Syria is not Libya," Schwartz told a conference in Arlington, Va. which was sponsored by Credit Suisse and McAleese and Associates. "Syria would be a much more demanding air environment" for U.S. war planes, he added.
Schwartz made clear conducting an aerial bombing campaign in Syria along the lines of the one U.S. and NATO forces carried out in Libya last spring would be much more difficult. That is in large part because Assad has equipped his military with air defense systems that are "approximately five times more sophisticated" than were Libya's, Schwartz's boss, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey, said Wednesday.
Plus, the Assad regime has 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, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told lawmakers Wednesday.
Panetta stressed Wednesday the Obama administration is seeking a political and diplomatic solution to Syria's civil unrest, but he also revealed for the first time that Washington is examining a range of military options.
House Armed Services Committee Ranking Member Adam Smith and a White House ally told DOTMILThursday that administration officials have yet to "figure out a way to intervene that will make a difference."
"The question is what can we do that will actually make a difference," Smith said during a brief interview following his remarks at the conference.
Some GOP hawks, like Arizona Sen. John McCain, have called for air strikes and other U.S. military actions to halt the civil unrest that the United Nations says has killed over 7,500 civilians.
"You can't just call for air strikes. That's not good enough," Smith said. "You have to be able to say from where, and against whom?"