By BRADLEY KLAPPER Associated Press
The Obama administration searched for answers Wednesday about a reported chemical weapons attack in Syria that would mark the most flagrant violation yet of the U.S. “red line” for potential military action. But the possibility of intervention seemed ever smaller after America’s top general offered a starkly pessimistic assessment of options.
Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in a letter this week to a congressman that the administration is opposed to even limited action in Syria because it believes rebels fighting the Bashar Assad government wouldn’t support U.S. interests if they seized power.
Dempsey said the U.S. military is clearly capable of taking out Assad’s air force and shifting the balance of the war toward the armed opposition. But such an approach would plunge the U.S. into the war without offering any strategy for ending what has become a sectarian fight, he said.
The reports again put a spotlight on President Barack Obama’s pledge almost a year ago to respond forcefully to any chemical weapons use by the Assad government. Since then, the administration has said it has confirmed that Syrian forces have committed such attacks, and the U.S. has ordered a package of small arms to be sent to some rebel groups, though it’s unclear what if any weapons have been delivered.
Yet up to now, Obama has refused all options of direct U.S. military intervention in a civil war that has killed more than 100,000 people and displaced millions.
“The United States is deeply concerned by reports that hundreds of Syrian civilians have been killed in an attack by Syrian government forces, including by the use of chemical weapons,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Wednesday.
Obama has said he doesn’t want to be drawn into another Mideast conflict after a decade of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Dempsey, in his letter, said, “Syria today is not about choosing between two sides but rather about choosing one among many sides,” In the Aug. 19 letter to Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., he said, “It is my belief that the side we choose must be ready to promote their interests and ours when the balance shifts in their favor. Today, they are not.”
Despite Dempsey’s assessment of the forces fighting Assad, Obama recognized the opposition coalition as “the legitimate representative” of the Syrian people eight months ago. And Secretary of State John Kerry has repeatedly backed the the vision promoted by Salim Idris, the rebel military chief.