WASHINGTON/BEIRUT: Pentagon leaders told Congress Thursday that they had supported a recommendation to arm Syrian opposition rebels promoted by the State Department and CIA but that it had reportedly been rebuffed by the White House.
President Barack Obama’s government has limited its support for non-lethal aid to the rebels who, despite receiving arms from states like Qatar and Saudi Arabia, are poorly armed compared to Syrian President Bashar Assad’s army and loyalist militias.
Until Thursday, the Pentagon had only said publicly that U.S. policy was to give only humanitarian aid to rebels battling Assad’s regime. Providing arms has been the subject of internal administration debate.
In testimony before the Senate Armed Service Committee Thursday, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Joint Chiefs chairman General Martin Dempsey said they had supported a proposal by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and then- CIA Director David Petraeus to train and arm some members of the Syrian opposition.
Senator John McCain, a Republican from Arizona, who has championed greater U.S. involvement and chided the Obama administration at a hearing, asking the Pentagon leaders: “How many more have to die before you recommend military action?”
He then asked Panetta and Dempsey whether they backed the recommendation by the State Department and CIA chiefs last year to arm the rebels.
“Did you support the recommendation by then-Secretary of State Clinton and then-head of CIA General Petraeus that we provide weapons to the resistance in Syria? Did you support that?” McCain asked.
“We do,” Panetta said. “We did,” Dempsey chimed in.
The testimony follows a New York Times report on Feb. 2 about the plan developed last summer by Clinton and Petraeus, who have since left their jobs at the State Department and CIA.
The defense chiefs’ testimony suggests that the heads of most major U.S. foreign policy and security agencies – the State and Defense departments, and the CIA – jointly backed the plan, but ran into White House opposition.
The Times said the plan to arm and train rebels was rebuffed by the White House, which was concerned it could draw the U.S. into the Syrian conflict and that the arms could fall into the wrong hands.