The Obama administration’s two top defense officials on Thursday publicly acknowledged a policy disagreement with the White House over whether to send U.S. arms to the rebels in Syria, Bloomberg News reports.
In congressional testimony, outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, both said they supported a plan last year by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and then-CIA Director David Petraeus to provide weapons to the rebels fighting to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad.
Their comments before the Senate Armed Services Committee came in response to questions from Republican Senators John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who have been leading critics of the Obama administration for failing to do more to help the Syrian rebels who are heavily outgunned by Assad’s forces.
“We did,” said Dempsey, responding to McCain.
“That was our position,” Panetta said to Graham, according to Bloomberg. “I do want to say, Senator, that obviously there were a number of factors that were involved here that ultimately led to the president’s decision to make it non-lethal.”
This means the president “overruled the senior leaders of his own national security team, who were in unanimous agreement that America needs to take greater action to change the military balance of power in Syria,” McCain said in a statement after the session.
“I urge the president to heed the advice of his former and current national security leaders and immediately take the necessary steps, along with our friends and allies, that could hasten the end of the conflict in Syria,” McCain said.
Asked about disagreement over whether to arm the rebels, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters at a briefing on Thursday that she won’t comment on “internal policy discussions.” White House spokesman Tommy Vietor said he had no comment.
Administration officials such as Nuland have said that the U.S. assistance to the Syrians is limited to humanitarian aid and non-lethal equipment for the rebels, while some other nations may be providing weapons.
U.S. officials have said publicly that sending weapons to the rebels risks increasing the bloodshed in Syria, where the United Nations estimates more than 60,000 people have been killed in the two-year uprising.
President Barack Obama has expressed concern that arms sent to the rebels might fall into the hands of terror groups.
Both McCain and Graham have in the past urged international cooperation to help supply anti-Assad rebels with weapons and other aid but stopped short of endorsing direct U.S. intervention.