WASHINGTON – President Barack 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 clear 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 late Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi’s army, 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.
Obama 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 that has ties to both Tehran and Damascus.