Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey were in favor of the plan last year put forth by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former CIA Director David Petraeus to arm the Syrian opposition, a plan which was rejected by the White House.
The New York Times reported last week that Secretary Clinton, along with Gen. Petraeus, had advocated arming select Syrian rebels in their fight against the Assad regime, but that this was turned down by President Obama.
During testimony before the Senate Armed Service Committee on Thursday, Dempsey said both he and Panetta sided with Clinton.
“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?” Sen. John McCain asked Panetta and Dempsey.
“We did,” Dempsey responded.
McCain issued a statement later Thursday condemning the White House for overruling the leadership of the State Department, the Defense Department, and the CIA on this matter, calling Obama’s opposition to arming the rebels “a graphic failure of American leadership.”
For at least a year, the US has bolstered the Syrian rebel movement fighting to overthrow the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Hundreds of millions of dollars as well as non-lethal gear have been sent to the rebel fighters, in addition to financial aid and weapons from US allies in the Arab Gulf states.
But reports have long established that al-Qaeda-linked terrorist groups, and other Sunni extremist factions like it, have become the key element in the Syrian rebel opposition, despite repeated attempts by some in Washington to paint the rebels as freedom fighters.
In October, The New York Times published an article confirming that “Most of the arms shipped at the behest of Saudi Arabia and Qatar to supply Syrian rebel groups fighting the government of Bashar al-Assad are going to hard-line Islamic jihadists,” despite the fact that those weapons were being sent with US approval and coordination.
All along, the Obama administration claimed they had a proper vetting process which allowed them to pick and choose which of Syria’s disparate, unorganized rebel groups would receive the assistance, and avoid the thousands of jihadist fighters, many of whom are fighting under the banner of al-Qaeda.
But a US official told the Washington Post early on that the CIA knew very little about who was receiving US support, nor could they control exactly where it ended up. “It’s still the case that without actual access to Syria, it’s hard to know exactly who they are,” the official said.
The New York Times also reported that the Obama administration has been “increasing aid to the rebels” even though “we don’t really know” who is receiving it.
In two recent interviews, President Obama articulated in unprecedented depth why his administration has chosen to refrain from either directly arming rebel fighters in Syria or from any direct military action against the Assad regime.
“We do nobody a service when we leap before we look, where we…take on things without having thought through all the consequences of it,” Obama said in an interview with CBS.
“We are not going to be able to control every aspect of every transition and transformation” in conflicts around the world, he added.
“What I have to constantly wrestle with,” President Obama said in a separate interview with The New Republic, “is where and when can the United States intervene or act in ways that advance our national interest, advance our security, and speak to our highest ideals and sense of common humanity.”
“In a situation like Syria, I have to ask, can we make a difference in that situation?” Obama asked. “Would a military intervention have an impact? How would it affect our ability to support troops who are still in Afghanistan? What would be the aftermath of our involvement on the ground? Could it trigger even worse violence or the use of chemical weapons?”
Experts largely agree, Obama’s staff and Congressional Republicans notwithstanding, that a US intervention in Syria would worsen the humanitarian situation, and specifically for the Clinton-Petraeus plan of arming the rebels, would sponsor al-Qaeda affiliates and lay the ground for blowback.