Army General Martin Dempsey, the top U.S. military officer, said Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad is gaining against rebel forces as senators pressed for more aggressive U.S. action.
“Currently, the tide seems to have shifted in his favor,” Dempsey said of Assad today at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the general’s nomination for a second two-year term as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona, who has demanded action such as imposing a no-fly zone over Syria, pressed Dempsey without success today to disclose what he’s recommended to President Barack Obama. McCain plans to hold up Dempsey’s confirmation until he gets answers, according to Brian Rogers, his communications director.
The president has authorized providing small arms to the Syrian opposition.
“You testified this February you had advised the president to arm vetted units of the Syrian opposition,” McCain said. “In April, you testified you no longer supported the position. Now we read in published reports that the administration has decided to arm the Syrian opposition units. How do we account for those pirouettes?”
Dempsey said he had been concerned at one point “that the extremist groups were prevailing inside the opposition.” He said he supports “the building of a moderate opposition and including building its military capability.”
Dempsey said the Obama administration is evaluating whether to conduct “kinetic strikes” against the Syrian regime, without elaborating, and said “it would be inappropriate for me to try to influence the decision” by “rendering an opinion in public about what kind of force we should use.”
He said he would let the committee know what his recommendations are “at the appropriate time.”
Senator Carl Levin of Michigan, the panel’s Democratic chairman, echoed McCain’s frustration and asked Dempsey to submit within days an unclassified list of military options in Syria that evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of each.
“There is a real uncertainty among some of us as to what your role is in terms of telling us your personal opinion on things, what your role is in terms of giving advice to the president” on options for Syria, Levin said.
Dempsey said he would compile the list “as well as the framework of a strategy in which they might make sense.”
Syria’s civil war, which began with peaceful protests in March 2011, has killed more than 93,000 people, by United Nations estimates. It has also sent hundreds of thousands refugees fleeing into neighboring countries such as Jordan.