President Obama calls on a reporter during a news conference at the White… (Susan Walsh, Associated…)
Reporting from Washington — President Obama on Tuesday ruled out a unilateral U.S. military campaign to support the beleaguered rebels in Syria, calling such an operation "much more complicated" than the NATO-led air war launched to help protect civilians during the civil war in Libya last year.
At a White House news conference, Obama described the shelling and other attacks on civilians and rebel fighters by forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad as "heartbreaking and outrageous."
But Obama made it clear that he is not prepared to send U.S. forces to try to stop the carnage in Syrian cities and towns, or to help overthrow Assad, as some Republicans in Congress have urged.
White House officials fear getting drawn into another armed conflict, especially in an election year. They view the Syrian regime as a more formidable military challenge than the one presented by the army of the late Libyan dictator Moammar Kadafi, which took more than seven months to defeat. There is also far less international support for intervention in Syria than there was for Libya.
"For us to take military action unilaterally as some have suggested, or to think that somehow there is some simple solution, I think is a mistake," Obama said in his most extensive comments on the violence in Syria.
He promised to continue efforts to isolate Assad's regime and to work with allies to support the opposition and provide humanitarian aid. There is little prospect of a United Nations mandate for military action, in part because Russia and China seem intent on blocking any proposals in the Security Council that might allow the use of force.
Saudi Arabia and Qatar have publicly supported arming the rebels, but the Obama administration has opted for economic sanctions and other diplomatic moves to cut off Assad and his regime.
As the violence has mounted, several members of Congress have urged a more direct U.S. role.
At a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing Tuesday, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) called for U.S. airstrikes to save civilians, arguing that America has more security interests at stake in Syria than it did in Libya.
McCain said driving Assad from power would be a major blow to Iran, Syria's closest ally in the region, as well as to Hezbollah, the staunchly anti-Israel Lebanese militant group and political party, which has ties to both Tehran and Damascus.
Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis, the top U.S. military commander in the Middle East, told the Senate committee that the longer the conflict lasts, the greater the chance it will descend into a civil war that could draw in Al Qaeda militants and fighters from neighboring Iraq.
Yet Mattis echoed the caution voiced by the White House, making it clear that he had deep reservations about a U.S. military intervention. He said that the Pentagon was not planning for war.
"I have not been asked to do detailed planning" on military operations for Syria, Mattis said. He declined to discuss contingency plans in a public hearing.
Mattis said providing arms to the rebels was "perhaps an option" for the U.S. and its allies. But he warned that would be likely to intensify the fighting and could lead to more deaths in the short term.
As a first step, he said, U.S. officials need better information about the makeup and leadership of the rebel forces, in part to ensure that weapons don't fall into the hands of Al Qaeda militants.
McCain responded by saying that the U.S. should "find out who these people are and I guarantee we will find out it's not Al Qaeda."
"A whole lot of people are going to die if we allow the status quo to prevail and the slaughter to continue because, quote, we don't know who they are," he said.
Mattis said Syria's air defense system, which includes advanced surface-to-air missiles from Russia and other nations, would make a no-fly zone "challenging."
He also raised concern about proposals to use air power to create havens for opposition forces in Syria, indicating the open desert is ill-suited for large protective compounds.
Mattis said Iran was providing Assad's regime with weapons, eavesdropping equipment and intelligence operatives to suppress the nearly yearlong rebellion. "It is a full-throated effort by Iran to keep Assad there and oppress his own people," he said.
Asked later whether he supported McCain's call for airstrikes, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) told reporters the situation in Syria was "pretty complicated; and I think until there's clearer direction as to what's happening there, involving ourselves at this time would be premature."
At the news conference, Obama said that deploying the U.S. military wasn't the only way to deal with foreign crises. "We've got to think through what we do through the lens of what's going to be effective, but also what's critical for U.S. security interests," he said.
Obama appeared to apply a different standard last year when he joined the European-led push to impose a no-fly zone over Libya, a nation where the U.S. has few direct interests. The operation had a U.N. Security Council mandate, however, and close European allies had direct economic and political interests in the region.