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Syria Turmoil’s Spread Risks Spilling Across Borders

The spread of Syria’s turmoil and uncertainties over its chemical and biological weapons pose escalating risks, President Barack Obama’s top military adviser said even as he cautioned against immediate U.S. involvement.

“Spillover into neighboring countries is an increasing concern,” Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the House Armed Services Committee in Washington today. He cited the flow of refugees and the chance extremists may try to capitalize on the chaos.

The U.S. has “solid military relationships with every country on Syria’s border,” Dempsey said. The U.S. must be “especially alert to the fate of Syria’s chemical and biological weapons. They need to stay exactly where they are.”

Dempsey’s appraisal highlighted the dangers as the U.S. and allies in Europe and the Middle East look for solutions through diplomacy and sanctions while demanding that President Bashar al-Assad step down. The United Nations estimates more than 9,000 people have been killed in more than a year of fighting as Assad’s forces cracked down on opposition demonstrations and rebels formed military units to fight back.

A cease-fire that went into effect on April 12 hasn’t ended the bloodshed. Syria and the UN today reached agreement on how cease-fire monitors would carry out their duties, the UN said. Security forces killed at least 46 people yesterday, the opposition Local Coordination Committees said in an e-mail.

Syria’s Economy

Syria’s economy has been hit hard by three U.S. executive orders targeting senior leaders, commerce and the central bank of Syria, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said, testifying alongside Dempsey. The executive orders have contributed to 30 percent of the decline in the regime’s revenue, and the oil embargo by the U.S. and European Union has created further losses, he said.

“The exchange rate has depreciated by more than 50 percent,” Panetta told the committee. “And their GDP has been in a serious decline, approaching almost minus 8 percent in 2011 and more now.”

Panetta and Dempsey faced little pressure from the committee to take military action, unlike a Senate hearing last month, when Arizona Senator John McCain, the top Republican on the Armed Services panel, advocated more U.S. involvement.

While humanitarian concerns loom and the temptation is great to unseat Assad forcibly in a potential blow to his ally Iran, the risks are too great, House committee Chairman Howard “Buck” McKeon said today.

‘Robust Air Defenses’

“There is much we do not know about the opposition,” said McKeon, a California Republican. “Syria also maintains robust air defenses that limit military options. Therefore, I’m not recommending U.S. military intervention, particularly in light of our grave budget situation, unless the national security threat was clear and present.”

Dempsey and Panetta reiterated the caution against U.S. military involvement that they voiced last month before the Senate committee.

The U.S. would need “a clear legal basis” and broad regional and international support to act militarily in the conflict, Panetta said today in written remarks. He cited the UN resolution that authorized action in Libya last year.

“From every angle, the situation in Syria is enormously complex,” Panetta said. “Recent days are testing whether the Assad regime will live up to all of its responsibilities to the Syrian people and to the international community.”

Conditions for Action

Panetta said he and Dempsey are “unified with regards to not proceeding with any military action unless there’s clear objective, unless we know what it’s going to take to achieve that objective, how long is it going to take, and ultimately do we have the legal authority to accomplish what we’re being asked to accomplish.”

On Syria’s chemical and biological weapons, the U.S. is sharing information with allies in the region, Dempsey said.

“We feel like we have a good understanding of the current disposition of Syria’s chemical and biological weapons,” he said.

The defense officials said the U.S. is making contingency plans, including for a humanitarian corridor, in the event Obama opts for American military involvement. They said the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s operation in Libya last year would serve as a template.

Keeping Syria Intact

“The bottom line is that anything that takes the Assad regime down is a step in the right direction,” Panetta said. “What the international community has to assure is that, if that happens, it happens in the context of legitimate reforms that keep that country together and that serve the Syrian people.”

Dempsey said people in the region are increasingly restive for greater economic and political rights, especially as they see successful revolts around them. Ultimately, that will provide more stability as authoritarian regimes yield to more open systems, he said.

“Getting from here to there is going to be a wild ride,” Dempsey said. “So I think we’re in for 10 or 15 years of instability in a region that has already been characterized by instability.”

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