Appearing at a hearing in front of the Senate Armed Services Committee, the two defense officials were asked by Arizona Senator John McCain, the leading Republican proponent of a more aggressive backing of Syrian rebels, if they supported the idea of arming the opposition.
“We do,” answered Panetta.
“We did,” answered Dempsey.
Panetta and Dempsey did not get a chance to explain the response as Senator McCain moved on to another topic.
The administration has resisted arming the rebels citing concerns about the infiltration of extremists groups who would possibly use those weapons against other targets. For now the administration has provided millions in humanitarian aid. The CIA has also sent agents to vet the opposition group to try to better understand its composition.
But last December, the U.S. designated a key Syrian rebel group, the al-Nusra Front, as a terrorist entity. U.S. officials argued it was a necessary step that will not weaken the ability of other rebels to combat the Syrian military.
President Barack Obama spoke of the hesitation of getting more involved in Syria in an interview last month with CBS News.
“Syria is a classic example of where our involvement, we want to make sure that not only does it enhance U.S. security, but also that it is doing right by the people of Syria and neighbors like Israel that are going to be profoundly affected by it. And – and so it’s true sometimes that we don’t just shoot from the hip.”
Senator McCain used the answer by Panetta and Dempsey to urge the president to consider the plan, saying in a statement released to the press ““the time to act is long overdue, but it is not too late.”
“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,” McCain said in the statement.