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Panetta Defends U.S. Caution On Syria, Says Assad Exit Is A Matter Of Time

U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta (left) and Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey testify at a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee on Capitol Hill on March 7.
WASHINGTON -- U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has defended U.S. caution in trying to end violence in Syria.

Panetta and General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, both told the Senate Armed Services Committee that U.S. intelligence agencies believed it was just a matter of time before Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad was ousted from power.

Panetta told the committee that the Pentagon has discussed possible options for action in response to the violence in Syria but he said no detailed planning was under way because "we are waiting for the direction of the president."

Dempsey warned that Syrian air defenses were significantly more advanced than those of Libya or Bosnia.

He said Syria has "approximately five times more sophisticated air-defense systems than existed in Libya covering one-fifth of the terrain."

Panetta also noted that the armed resistance in Syria was so fragmented that it was difficult to know who outside governments should recognize or contact, with roughly 100 groups identified as part of the opposition.

Syria also is very diverse demographically, ethnically, and religiously.

He said resorting to military action could have the unintended effect of feeding a full-blown civil war.

However, Dempsey said the military had prepared contingency plans for possible intervention at the request of the White House.

He said the Pentagon has done a commander's assessment focused on mission, enemy, terrain, troops and time.

Panetta said that among the options are enforcement of a no-fly zone, humanitarian relief; and other non-lethal assistance.

Panetta also stressed that there was no international consensus yet on how to proceed over Syria but efforts were under way to reach agreement on what action to take.

Efforts to develop an international consensus toward Syria have met resistance, despite seemingly rare agreement between Arab states and a number of Western governments on the need for action.

Russia and China have opposed any intervention similar to the one last year in Libya and last month vetoed a UN Security Council resolution backing an Arab League call for a political transition that would have Assad cede power.

The United Nations estimates some 7,500 people have been killed in Syria since unrest started last year.

Influential U.S. senator and 2008 Republican presidential nominee John McCain (Arizona) on March 5 suggested the United States should lead air strikes against Syria, saying "it would be a moral and strategic defeat for the United States" if Assad were to remain in power.

With AFP, AP, dpa, and Reuters reporting