WASHINGTON – Secretary of State John Kerry said Friday that the United States is evaluating new options to halt Syria’s civil war, but he refused to weigh into administration debates over whether to arm the rebels fighting President Bashar Assad’s regime.
In his first news conference as secretary, Kerry said the Obama administration was looking at the crisis anew and hoping to find a diplomatic solution. But he sidestepped specifically addressing a question over providing military assistance to the anti-Assad opposition.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Congress on Thursday that they had recommended offering military support to the rebels but were rebuffed by President Barack Obama.
“My sense right now is that everybody in the administration and people in other parts of the world are deeply distressed by the continued violence in Syria,” Kerry told reporters alongside Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird. “There’s too much killing. There’s too much violence. And we obviously want to try to find a way forward.
“We are evaluating now,” he said. “We’re taking a look at what steps, if any, diplomatic particularly, might be able to be taken in an effort to try to reduce that violence and deal with that situation.”
Kerry’s suggestion of a possible new American approach comes after Panetta and Dempsey gave the Senate a glimpse of the internal disagreements over how forcefully the U.S. should respond to violence that has killed some 60,000 people in the past two years. Both military leaders said they supported providing weapons to the rebels, but that the president made the final decision against such action.
Washington has struggled throughout Syria’s civil war to come up with a policy that would help end the bloodshed and hasten Assad’s departure. Obama called on the Syrian leader to leave power in August 2011, but the United States has refused to entertain any notion of military intervention by patrolling Syria’s skies to prevent government airstrikes or by handing out advanced weaponry to Syrian rebels.
U.S. officials have noted that, unlike in Libya, there is no U.N. mandate for any direct American military involvement such as a no-fly zone. And officials believe any plan to provide weapons would only further militarize a conflict that needs to be resolved with some sort of political transition. There is also fear that if the weapons end up in the hands of terrorists and extremist groups they can later turn on nearby Israel or other U.S. allies and interests in the region.