WASHINGTON — The top U.S. military commander in Europe said Tuesday that NATO is conducting contingency planning for possible military involvement in Syria and American forces would be prepared if called upon by the United Nations and member countries.
The Syrian civil war marked an ignominious two-year milestone this week with no sign that President Bashar Assad is close to giving up power. Adm. James Stavridis, commander of U.S. European Command, told a Senate panel that the United States is "looking at a variety of operations."
"We are prepared if called upon to be engaged," Stavridis told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Stavridis, who is retiring soon, also said the option of assisting the opposition forces in Syria in ways that would break the deadlock are being actively explored by NATO members. A resolution from the U.N. Security Council and agreement among the alliance's 28 members would be required before NATO assumes a military role in Syria, he said.
"The Syrian situation continues to become worse and worse and worse – 70,000 killed, a million refugees pushed out of the country, probably 2.5 million internally displaced (people)," Stavridis said. "No end in sight to a vicious civil war."
The commander said discussions within the NATO member countries have focused on imposing a no-fly zone, providing lethal support to the Syrian opposition forces and imposing arms embargoes.
Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., asked whether there is any consideration of targeting Syria's air defenses. Stavridis simply said yes.
NATO has installed Patriot missile defense batteries in southern Turkey along the border with Syria that are also capable of shooting down aircraft. During an exchange with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., Stavridis said the Patriots could be positioned in such a way as to shoot down Syrian aircraft and he indicated that doing so would be a powerful disincentive for pilots to fly in that area.
The Patriot batteries are on Turkish soil and the country's leaders have been "very emphatic" that the missiles be used only for defensive purposes, Stavridis said. To use the batteries for other missions, including attacking Syrian military aircraft, would require consensus among NATO's members.
"And we're far from that," Stavridis told the committee.
Stavridis said that his personal opinion is that providing military assistance to the Syrian opposition "would be helpful in breaking the deadlock and bringing down the Assad regime."
At another Capitol Hill hearing on Syria, senior State Department officials said even if the Assad regime falls, humanitarian aid to the Syrian people will have to continue.
Anne Richard, the assistant secretary of State for Population, Refugees, and Migration, also made clear that the Obama administration does not foresee a negotiated settlement to the crisis despite diplomatic efforts.
"It's hard to imagine a peaceful outcome with Assad in power," Richard told a Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee.
Officials described a unique humanitarian crisis, with tens of thousands of Syrian refugees straining the resources of countries such as Jordan and Lebanon. Richard said of the 1 million refugees, half have arrived in neighboring countries in the last two months.
Syrian refugees now account for 10 percent of the Lebanese population.
The violent, unending war has prompted some in Congress to offer legislation and demand greater action by the Obama administration. But a war-weary American public has been slow to embrace many of the efforts.
In the latest proposal, Sens. Bob Casey, D-Pa., and Marco Rubio, R-Fla., offered a bipartisan measure that would provide non-lethal aid to vetted Syrian opposition groups battling the Assad regime.
The measure would authorize additional humanitarian assistance for the Syrian people and provide equipment such as body armor and communications to opposition groups.
Casey and Rubio said the horrors of the two-year civil war have gone on too long, and left open the possibility of arming the rebels at a later date.
"Down the road we may make another determination," Casey said when asked about arming the rebels.
New York Rep. Eliot Engel introduced legislation on Monday that would arm and train vetted opposition groups.
The bipartisan Senate measure also would expand sanctions against the Central Bank of Syria.