The outgoing leader of the United States Department of Defense told Congress on Thursday that the Pentagon favors a plan to arm the Syrian rebels attempting to oust President Bashar al-Assad.
US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told lawmakers in Washington Thursday morning that he supports an initiative introduced by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that would have equipped anti-Assad rebels with American weaponry. The plan, hatched by Sec. Clinton and endorsed by both Sec. Panetta and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was opposed by Pres. Barack Obama, who instead has sought more diplomatic solutions to the Middle East uprising.
Mrs. Clinton, Pres. Obama’s secretary of state since 2009, retired from that role earlier this month. Former Senator John Kerry was confirmed as her replacement on February 1, and Mr. Panetta is expected to walk away from his DoD position in the coming days.
More than 60,000 people have been killed in Syria since the Arab Spring began nearly two years ago. For Pres. Obama, though, an intervention by way of weaponry could only increase the instability into the region and spawn further violent responses.
“We have seen extremist elements insinuate themselves into the opposition, and you know, one of the things that we have to be on guard about – particularly when we start talking about arming opposition figures – is that we are not indirectly putting arms in the hands of folks that would do Americans harm, or do Israelis harm or otherwise engage in, in actions that are detrimental to our national security,” Mr. Obama said in November.
Now, though, comments made from the nation’s capital on Thursday suggest a rift between the White House and the Pentagon, where Sec. Panetta favored Clinton’s proposal. The revelation came about after Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona), chairperson of the Senate Armed Services Committee, introduced the question during a hearing revolving around the September 2012 terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya that left four Americans dead. Mr. Panetta and General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, sat side-by-side as Mr. McCain asked if they favored the former secretary of state’s initiative.
“We do,” said Panetta. “We did,” answered Dempsey.
Moments later on Twitter, a message sent from the account registered to Sen. McCain commented on the discovery.
“Interesting,” wrote McCain, “Panetta and Dempsey say they supported the Clinton/Petraeus plan to arm the rebels in #Syria.”
Later in the afternoon, Sen. McCain issued a statement even further exploring the revelation made earlier that day on the Hill.
“I was very pleased to hear both Secretary Panetta and Chairman Dempsey state that they supported this proposal, which unfortunately was refused by the White House. What this means is that 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,” he wrote.
“The crisis in Syria represents a graphic failure of American leadership. 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.”