WASHINGTON - Two senior senators pressed the top U.S. military official for his assessment about the use of U.S. force in Syria as his reluctance to give Congress his personal opinion threatens his nomination.
Sen. Carl Levin, a Democrat and chairman of the Armed Services Committee, and Sen. John McCain, a leading Republican, sent a letter to Gen. Martin Dempsey on Friday with 11 extensive questions about Syria as well as the war in Afghanistan.
The letter comes a day after McCain and Dempsey tangled at a congressional hearing. The Republican lawmaker said he would block Dempsey's nomination to a second term as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff until he gets an adequate response from the general.
McCain and Levin have been pushing for a more aggressive response by the Obama administration to the deadly civil war that has killed an estimated 93,000 and displaced millions of Syrians, creating a humanitarian crisis in neighbouring countries such as Jordan and Turkey.
Among the questions was a request for Dempsey's assessment of the "costs, benefits and risks associated with training and arming vetted elements of the Syrian opposition? In your view, could such action alone be sufficient to adequately build the military capability of the moderate opposition in Syria and create the necessary conditions for the administration's stated policy objective - Bashar Assad's departure and a negotiated solution to the conflict in Syria — to succeed?"
Assad is president of the Arab nation.
The senators also asked Dempsey whether the U.S. military has the ability to significantly reduce Syria's air power, ballistic missiles and heavy artillery, and whether taking that step would shift the balance of power in the civil war.
Col. Edward Thomas, a spokesman for Dempsey, said the military leader would respond to the request.
At the hearing Thursday, McCain asked Dempsey to provide his personal opinion on which approach in Syria carries greater risk for U.S. national security interests: continued limited action on the part of Washington, or more significant steps such as establishment of a no-fly zone and arming rebel forces with the weapons they need to stem the advance of Assad's forces.
Dempsey said he has provided President Barack Obama with options for the use of U.S. military force in Syria, but he declined to detail those choices.
"It would be inappropriate for me to try to influence the decision with me rendering an opinion in public about what kind of force we should use," Dempsey said.
Dempsey added that the question of whether to support the opposition forces in Syria "with direct kinetic strikes ... is a decision for our elected officials, not for the senior military leader of the nation."
The use of kinetic strikes, a military term that typically refers to missiles and bombs, "is under deliberation inside of our agencies of government," he said.
Dempsey's response, McCain said, contradicted his commitment to provide the committee with his personal views, even if those opinions differ from the administration in power.
In releasing the letter, the senators said they expected answers "as soon as possible in order to move forward promptly with the confirmation."
The letter also seeks Dempsey's assessment of the Afghan National Security Forces and the risks associated with pulling U.S. forces out of Afghanistan.
Associated Press writer Richard Lardner contributed to this report.
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