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Panetta Says U.S. Weighs Military Role in Syria If Needed

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said the U.S. is reviewing military action to ease the crisis in Syria even as he cautioned that the opposition and international support aren’t unified enough to intervene now.

The Obama administration is consulting with other nations and considering “an array of non-lethal assistance,” Panetta told the Senate Armed Services Committee in Washington yesterday. He also cited U.S. concerns over Syria’s stockpile of chemical weapons, which he said is “100 times worse than what we dealt with in Libya.”

A bloody siege of Homs last month led to intensified international pressure on President Bashar al-Assad a year after his forces began a crackdown on protests. The army has used tanks and artillery to fight opposition forces and more than 7,500 people have died in the conflict, according to the United Nations.

“What doesn’t make sense is to take unilateral action right now,” Panetta said. “Before I recommend that we put our sons and daughters in uniform in harm’s way, I’ve got to make very sure that we know what the mission is, I’ve got to be very sure that we know whether we can achieve that mission and at what price.”

Syria’s deputy oil minister, Abdo Hussameldin, defected, according to a statement he posted on YouTube. If confirmed, it would be the highest ranking resignation to date in the conflict.

‘Brink of the Abyss’

“I declare that I am joining the revolution,” Hussameldin said in the video from an undisclosed location. Hussameldin, seated in an armchair dressed in a black suit and tie, accused the government of atrocities and “of driving the country to the brink of the abyss.”

The video, whose authenticity couldn’t be independently verified, was also cited by news organizations including the BBC, the Associated Press and Al Jazeera.

Hussameldin’s decision to join the opposition follows thousands of military defections. About 40,000 soldiers from the 270,000 people armed forces have defected, the Turkish Foreign Ministry said Feb. 20, citing intelligence reports.

Security forces killed at least 40 people across Syria yesterday, the Local Coordination Committees of Syria said on its website. Attacks on Homs alone resulted in the deaths of 26 civilians, according to the LCC, as the UN’s emergency relief coordinator, Valerie Amos, visited the central district after meeting Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem in Damascus.

‘Badly Damaged’

Al-Muallem affirmed Syria’s commitment to cooperating with the UN mission “within the framework of respect for the sovereignty and independence of Syria,” according to state-run Syrian Arab News Agency. Yet, Amos wasn’t given access to opposition-held areas, according to her spokeswoman in New York.

The UN envoy “was assured she could go where she wanted in the country,” spokeswoman Amanda Pitt said in a telephone interview yesterday. Amos visited Homs and said the neighborhood of Baba Amr, which Assad’s forces reclaimed after continuous shelling, “was badly damaged” with “very few” people around, according to Pitt.

Panetta and Army General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, resisted calls from some Republicans for immediate military involvement.

The hearing demonstrated the pressure on the Obama administration to find a way to ease the crisis in Syria.

U.S. Lead

“Americans should lead in this,” said Arizona Senator John McCain, the top Republican on the panel. “Mass atrocities are going on.”

After McCain called March 5 for U.S.-led airstrikes to create civilian safe havens, other lawmakers disagreed. House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, described U.S. intervention as premature “until there’s a clear direction as to what’s happening there.”

Senator Joe Lieberman, a Connecticut independent, was among committee members who cited the potential “strategic benefit” to the U.S. of toppling the Assad regime because of its links to Iran. American intervention would help unify the international community and the opposition, he said.

“The clock is running,” Lieberman said. Failure to act may lead to regret that “not only we didn’t do the right thing morally to stop innocents from being killed, we missed an extraordinary strategic opportunity to strengthen our position” in the Middle East, he said.

No Quick Fix

Dempsey said the U.S. has the right to take military action either with the consent of the nation involved, in its own national defense or with a UN Security Council resolution.

“We have to have some legal basis,” Dempsey said, adding that he also would advise taking any action in concert with a coalition. “We’ve shown that that produces an enduring outcome.”

President Barack Obama said Feb. 6 that unilateral U.S. action would be a mistake. Panetta echoed that comment in his remarks and said “there is no simple or quick solution to this crisis.”

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