Panetta Exposes Rift With Obama Over Arming Syrian Rebels

The Obama administration’s two top defense officials publicly acknowledged a policy rift with the White House over whether to send U.S. arms to Syrian rebels.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who is retiring, and Army General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, both said in congressional testimony yesterday that they supported a plan last year to provide weapons to the rebels fighting to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad.

Their comments before the Senate Armed Services Committee came in response to questions from Republican Senators John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. Both senators have been leading critics of the Obama administration for failing to do more to help the Syrian rebels, who are heavily outgunned by Assad’s forces.

“We did,” said Dempsey, responding to McCain’s question on whether they supported the plan to arm Assad’s opponents by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and David Petraeus, who was director of the Central Intelligence Agency at the time.

“That was our position,” Panetta said to Graham. “I do want to say, senator, that obviously there were a number of factors that were involved here that ultimately led to the president’s decision to make it non-lethal.”

The White House national security staff opposed providing military aid to any Syrian rebel groups, partly on concern that it would wind up in the hands of Islamic extremists, according to two officials who were involved in the policy debate. Both asked not to be identified because they weren’t authorized to talk publicly about the issue.

‘Overruled’ Advice

The outcome means the president “overruled the senior leaders of his own national security team, who were in unanimous agreement that America needs to take greater action to change the military balance of power in Syria,” McCain said in a statement after the session.

“I urge the president to heed the advice of his former and current national-security leaders and immediately take the necessary steps, along with our friends and allies, that could hasten the end of the conflict in Syria,” McCain said.

Asked about disagreement on sending arms to the rebels, Victoria Nuland, a State Department spokeswoman, said at a news briefing yesterday that she wouldn’t comment on “internal policy discussions.” Tommy Vietor, a White House spokesman, said he had no comment.

Administration officials such as Nuland have said that U.S. assistance to the Syrians is limited to humanitarian aid and non-lethal equipment for the rebels, while some other nations may be providing weapons.

Islamic Radicals

U.S. officials have said publicly that sending American weapons risks increasing the bloodshed in Syria, where the United Nations estimates more than 60,000 people have been killed in the two-year uprising.

President Barack Obama has expressed concern that arms sent to the rebels might fall into the hands of Islamic radicals.

“We have seen extremist elements insinuate themselves into the opposition, and you know, one of the things that we have to be on guard about -- particularly when we start talking about arming opposition figures -- is that we are not indirectly putting arms in the hands of folks that would do Americans harm, or do Israelis harm or otherwise engage in, in actions that are detrimental to our national security,” Obama said in a November news conference.

The White House national security staff also balked at sending arms to the rebels because they thought it would undercut Obama’s election-year message that he was extricating the U.S. from costly overseas military ventures, according to the two officials involved in the debate.

Rebel Groups

U.S. intelligence agencies identified several rebel groups that favored replacing the Assad regime with a broad coalition of opposition factions until democratic elections could be held, the officials said. Yet there was no guarantee that weapons supplied by the U.S. or its allies wouldn’t end up with Sunni extremists with ties to al-Qaeda’s Iraqi affiliate, they said.

Despite that risk, the officials said, the White House’s refusal to consider bolstering moderate rebel groups opened the door for Sunni extremist organizations such as the al-Nusra Front to seize the leading role in the battle. They said that also may mean an increased likelihood that a radical Islamist regime in Damascus could threaten Israel, destabilize Jordan, and strengthen Sunni radicals in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and elsewhere.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.