Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) joined McCain in the aggressive questioning, telling Mattis and Adm. William McRaven, head of Special Operations Command, that the conflict in Syria “is already militarized,” with the rebels clearly outmatched.
Mattis conceded that Assad’s forces were gaining “physical momentum” on the battlefield, most recently by laying siege to the rebel stronghold of Homs in western Syria.
Arming the rebels is an option, Mattis said, but Pentagon officials are wary that the weapons could find their way into the hands of terrorist groups like al Qaeda. The four-star general said there is already evidence that al Qaeda operatives have infiltrated the rebel’s ranks, and removing Assad from power could open that door further.
McCain shot back that there is “always the threat” of al Qaeda and other radical fundamentalist groups taking advantage of a power vacuum in Syria. But that risk is outweighed by the risk of doing nothing as Syrian civilians are being slaughtered, he said.
A handful of Senate Democrats cautioned against military action. Armed Services member Jack Reed (D-R.I.) said it “would require regional [support]” from allies and “a significant commitment” of American troops.
Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) said there would be no “clear cut” way to ensure that U.S. arms provided to the rebels don’t end up in the hands of terrorists.
The impact of arming the rebels would “play out over the [coming] years” and the U.S. would have to live with those consequences, Webb said.
“It is very important to be careful.”