WASHINGTON — Facing questions over U.S. options to stem the bloodshed in Syria, a top U.S. military leader said Tuesday that creating havens for rebels or imposing a no-fly zone would be extremely difficult because of the Syrian regime's Russian-provided air defense weaponry.
Marine Gen. James Mattis, who commands U.S. forces in the Middle East, also offered a cautionary word to members of the Senate Armed Forces Committee advocating direct U.S. assistance to Syrian rebels, saying that the uprising there is "not necessarily a rush towards democracy."
He said the makeup of the Free Syrian Army remained unclear.
Under questioning from senators including John McCain, R-Ariz., one of the most vocal proponents of military intervention in Syria, Mattis acknowledged that toppling Syrian President Bashar Assad would thwart Assad's ally Iran and al-Qaida, whose fighters have taken advantage of the chaos in Syria to stage attacks there.
Mattis declined to discuss on the record any plans the Pentagon was making but said, "If we were to provide options, whatever they are, to hasten the fall of Assad, it would cause a great deal of discontent in Tehran."
He said the bloodshed is bad and could get worse, as Assad uses "heavier and heavier weapons" against his own people to quash an uprising that began more than a year ago as peaceful protests. Mattis said Syria has substantial chemical and biological weapons capabilities, although officials haven't specified the size of Assad's arsenal.
The White House has said it would offer assistance to rebels based outside Syria, such as humanitarian aid, but opposes a direct U.S. military role. In a news conference Tuesday, President Barack Obama reiterated that while the situation in Syria was "heartbreaking and outrageous," deploying military assets wasn't an option right now.
Obama rejected comparisons to Libya, where U.S. airpower played a key role in a NATO campaign against deposed leader Moammar Gadhafi.
McCain repeated his calls for U.S. intervention in Syria.
"Military action is now needed to maintain options for allowing the opposition to flourish," he said, later adding that "there's always a threat of extremism, but the people of this revolution aren't al-Qaida."