Pentagon leaders have said they supported a recommendation from the US state department and CIA to arm Syrian rebels, but Barack Obama ultimately decided against it.
The Obama administration has limited its support to non-lethal aid for the rebels who, despite receiving weapons from countries such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia, are poorly armed compared with the army and loyalist militias of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad.
John McCain, a Republican senator who has championed greater US involvement, asked Pentagon leaders at a congressional hearing: “How many more have to die before you recommend military action?”
He then pressed the outgoing defence secretary, Leon Panetta, and General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the US military’s joint chiefs of staff, about whether they backed the recommendation by the state department and CIA chiefs last year to arm the rebels.
Panetta and Dempsey said they had backed the recommendation and, later in the hearing, the defence secretary elaborated.
“Obviously there were a number of factors that were involved here that ultimately led to the president’s decision to make [the aid] non-lethal,” Panetta said, adding that he supported Obama’s decision.
The comments were the first public acknowledgement of Pentagon support to arm the rebels since 2 February when the New York Times reported on the plan developed last summer by Hillary Clinton and David Petraeus, who have since left their jobs at the state department and CIA respectively.
The defence chiefs’ testimony suggested White House opposition alone may have been enough to override the position of most major US foreign policy and security agencies.
The New York Times said the plan to arm and train rebels was rebuffed by the White House due to concerns that it could draw the United States into the Syrian conflict and that the arms could fall into the wrong hands.
The questions about US policy in Syria came during a hearing focusing on Libya, with Pentagon leaders defending their response to last year’s deadly attack on the US consulate in Benghazi.
Republican politicians raised questions about whether the reaction was too slow and whether Obama was engaged enough during the incident, choosing to get updates on the crisis from staff instead of military leaders.
Panetta and Dempsey said US forces could not have reached Libya in time to prevent the deaths of the US ambassador and three other Americans on 11 September 2012, and insisted Obama was kept in the loop.
Panetta stressed that it was not the US military’s responsibility to be able to immediately respond anywhere in the world to a crisis. There was no intelligence about a specific plan to attack the consulate, he and Dempsey noted.
“The United States military … is not and, frankly, should not be a 911 service capable of arriving on the scene within minutes to every possible contingency around the world,” he said.