Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta has revealed that he and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin E. Dempsey originally backed a plan to send weapons to rebels fighting to overthrow President Bashar Assad in Syria - but the White House blocked it.
The revelation Thursday, which exposes a previously unknown rift within the Obama administration over policy toward Syria's bloody and nearly two-year-old civil war, came during Senate testimony focusing on the Sept. 11, 2012, terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya.
Mr. Panetta told Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, that he and Gen. Dempsey had backed a secret plan put forth by then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and then-CIA Director David H. Petraeus to arm opposition rebels under the assault of Syrian military forces loyal to Mr. Assad.
In another exchange, with Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Mr. Panetta said there “were a number of factors that were involved” in President Obama’s ultimate decision not to go through with the plan, but to instead make U.S. assistance to the rebels “nonlethal.”
“And I supported his decision in the end,” Mr. Panetta said. He is expected to soon retire as defense secretary.
His testimony Thursday will likely be his final appearance on Capitol Hill before he steps down — though it's unclear whether his chosen replacement, former Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel, will win confirmation to the post.
Channeling aid into Syria, meanwhile, has presented political and strategic challenges for the Obama administration, which has expressed concerns about the presence of Islamists among those battling the regime of Mr. Assad.
Administration officials, including Mrs. Clinton, have expressed concern that U.S. aid could end up in the wrong hands.
The New York Times first reported last Sunday that as the fighting raged in Syria last summer, Mr. Petraeus developed a plan, which Mrs. Clinton supported, calling for vetting rebels and training fighters who would be supplied with weapons.
The White House, however, was worried about the risks of getting more deeply involved in the crisis in Syria, the newspaper reported.
And with Mr. Obama in the midst of a re-election bid, the White House rebuffed the plan, rejecting the advice of most of the key members of Mr. Obama’s national security team.
The White House instead ramped up “nonlethal” support for Syrian rebels and refugees late last month, committing a fresh $155 million in humanitarian aid and bringing the total U.S. monetary response to the Syrian civil war to $365 million.
Mr. Obama has directed $15 million of the new aid toward helping some 700,000 Syrians who, the United Nations estimates, have fled their homeland as a result of the two-year-old war that has claimed more 60,000 lives.
With the U.N. estimating 200,000 refugees have left Syria just in the past seven weeks, Mr. Obama signed an order Tuesday authorizing aid from the United States “for the purpose of meeting unexpected urgent refugee and migration needs.
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