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Syria policy

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Leading Obama administration officials presented a confusing assessment of the conflict in Syria in trying to explain U.S. policy toward the war-torn country in testimony before Congress this week.

American policy has been to seek a negotiated settlement that would end the civil war, now in its third year, with the departure of President Bashar al-Assad while providing non-lethal and humanitarian aid to the Syrian rebels. The fractured nature of the opposition that includes radical groups with links to al-Qaida has made the administration reluctant to provide weapons to moderate groups out of fear they could find their way to the militants. Whether that remains the case is unclear.

Secretary of State John Kerry testifying before the House Foreign Affairs Committee Wednesday morning emphasized the need to increase aid to the rebels to put pressure on President Assad, the New York Times reported.

However, Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, cautioned against arming selected rebel factions, telling the Senate Armed Services Committee Wednesday afternoon, “It’s actually more confusing on the opposition side today than it was six months ago.” He was not sure the United States “could clearly identify the right people” to arm, the New York Times reported.

The general’s remarks reflect a change in position from last year when he had supported arming some rebel groups. General Dempsey also suggested that providing weapons to the rebels could interfere with the humanitarian effort.

Although Mr. Kerry testified that the rebels were “making headway on the ground,” General Dempsey was less confident. “There’s a risk that this conflict has become stalemated,” he told senators.

For those who would want the United States to deepen its military involvement in Syria, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, also appearing before the Armed Services Committee, had a strongly worded warning. He informed the committee that 200 troops had been sent to Jordan to assist with any spillover of violence from Syria and to help plan for possible military intervention to secure Syria’s chemical weapons.

However, sending in thousands of U.S. troops now “could embroil the United States in a significant, lengthy and uncertain military commitment,” he said. “You better be damned sure, as sure as you can be, before you get into something, because once you’re into it, there isn’t any backing out . ... Once your in, you can’t unwind it. You can’t just say, well, it’s not going as well as I thought it would go, so we’re going to get out.”

Unintended consequences, he said, could draw the United States into a broader regional conflict.

Given the confusion over the complicated situation in Syria, Secretary Hagel’s words are sound advice against a policy change now.

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