The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff for the first time Wednesday revealed that the United States is preparing basic plans to attack Syria to stop President Bashar Assad from killing unarmed protesters against the government.
"We have looked at a number of options that could be involved here," Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
He said the Pentagon is waiting for President Obama to decide whether the preparation goes beyond what he called a basic military assessment before developing detailed contingency plans that would identify specific military units that would be involved in any action.
Gen. Dempsey said potential military options include limited airstrikes and the establishment of a no-fly zone and a humanitarian corridor to deliver relief supplies.
Some committee members questioned why the administration opposes arming the opposition, which includes some soldiers who have defected from the Syrian army. The United Nations estimates that the Syrian regime has killed more than 7,500 protesters during the past year.
Gen. Dempsey said the United States would not even consider arming the rebels until U.S. officials learn more about the armed opposition, which could include as many as 100 dissident groups.
"If we ever do reach a decision to arm the opposition, it can't simply be arming them without command and control, without any communications, because then it becomes a roving band of rebels," he said.
Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the senior Republican on the committee, urged military intervention to stop the killings.
"Assad needs to know that he will not win, and unfortunately that is not the case now," said Sen. McCain."How many more have to die? Ten thousand more? Twenty thousand more?"
Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta, who also testified at the hearing, said the administration is preparing to provide $10 million in humanitarian aid to the Syrian people and will work with the Friends of Syria, a group of Western and Arab leaders, to get the aid into the country.
"Although we will not rule out any future course of action, currently the administration is focusing on diplomatic and political approaches rather than a military intervention," Mr. Panetta said.
He said unilateral U.S. action "doesn't make sense at this point."
In the House, the Foreign Affairs Committee unanimously approved bipartisan legislation, imposing tougher sanctions on Mr. Bashar and other top officials and targeting the energy and financial sectors.
"Assad's regime is digging in for a long-term war, and news reports indicate that the regime is bragging about mass 'cleansing,'" said committee Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Florida Republican.
In Syria on Wednesday, a U.N. emergency relief official toured the shattered Baba Amr neighborhood in the rebellious city of Homs and found that most residents have fled.
Activists have accused Syrian security forces of sealing off Baba Amr to cover up atrocities from a month-long shelling assault.
Valeria Ann Amos, the U.N. secretary-general for humanitarian affairs, arrived in the capital, Damascus, earlier in the day and headed straight for Homs, one of the flash-point cities in the uprising against Mr. Bashar.
The Syrian military captured Baba Amr last week after a battle with a small armed rebel force extending nearly four weeks.
The Syrian government sealed off the neighborhood during the past six days and claimed the situation was too dangerous to allow humanitarian workers to enter.
"They haven't let anyone in for a week, and now they are going to let them in?" Homs activist Tarek Badrakhan said to the Associated Press.
"Today it's simple. They finished their crimes and hid all the proof. Now they think they can show that everything is normal."
Also Wednesday, Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki repeated his offer of asylum for Mr. Assad, after Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin refused to even consider sheltering the Syrian leader. He was elected president again on Sunday.
"If the price of peace in Syria is to give safe haven to this guy, why not?" Mr. Marzouki told the British Broadcasting Corp.
In Moscow, Mr. Putin told reporters who asked about asylum for Mr. Assad, "We are not even discussing the question."
Russia has repeatedly defended the Syrian leader and blocked U.N. efforts to condemn his crackdown on the protesters.
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.
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