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Dempsey, Winnefeld Discuss Syria at Confirmation Hearing

By Nick Simeone
WASHINGTON — The chairman and vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff told the Senate Armed Services Committee today that momentum in Syria's civil war appears to have shifted in favor of President Bashar Assad, but they declined to say what recommendations they have given the president regarding possible U.S. military intervention. 

Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey and Navy Adm. James A. Winnefeld Jr. were asked about the situation in Syria and possible U.S. intervention during a hearing called to consider their nominations to serve two more years as the nation's top military officers. 

"Currently, the tide seems to have shifted in [Assad's] favor,"= Dempsey said, with Winnefeld adding, "If I were to have to pick who's winning, it would be the regime, but not by much." 

Dempsey said the military has provided President Barack Obama with options for Syria and that the administration is deliberating over whether to use "kinetic strikes" against Syrian targets. However, he said, it would be inappropriate "to render an opinion in public about what kind of force we should use," pledging that as the military considers options, he will articulate whether he thinks they'll be effective and what the risks would be for U.S. forces. 

Dempsey said unless the momentum in the two-year Syrian civil war shifts, the chances for a negotiated settlement appear remote. Both military leaders agreed that a decision by Russia -- a major weapons supplier and Syria's largest ally outside the region -- to stop supporting Assad would be a "game changer." 

But the Syrian leader, Winnefeld said, is going to "fight to the death," and he predicted Assad will still be in power a year from now if Russia, Iran and Hezbollah continue to support him. 

After determining in June that pro-Assad forces had used chemical weapons, including sarin gas, on their opponents, the Obama administration announced that it would supply the resistance with small arms. But Dempsey expressed reluctance about any option that seeks to simply better equip the rebels, noting this could cause the situation to deteriorate further. "This opposition has to not only be prepared militarily, but it has to be prepared if it achieves a position of governance inside of Syria," he said. 

Dempsey said the consequences of Syria's civil war are having a destabilizing effect on the region, agreeing with the assessment of one member of the panel that the influx of tens of thousands of Syrian refuges in Jordan could soon threaten the rule of King Abdalllah. He noted that the conflict already has destabilized western Iraq. 

Ultimately, Dempsey told the committee, any decision by the United States to use military force in Syria rests with the president. 

"We've given him options," the chairman said. "The members of this committee have been briefed on them in a classified setting. We've articulated the risk."