Pentagon walks back growing war rhetoric on Syria

"The focus of the United States remains on economic and diplomatic pressure" to force Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from power, DOD spokesman George Little told reporters during a briefing at the Pentagon.

However, Little's comments coincide with the White House and top military officials taking an increasingly harder stance against the Assad regime — a stance that has led some to believe the United States could be inching closer to military action in the region.

The rhetoric escalated this weekend in the aftermath of a massacre of more than 100 Syrian civilians by forces loyal to the Assad regime.

Friday's attack in the Syrian village of Houla, north of the rebel city of Homs, drew a strong rebuke from the United States and the international community.

It also drew the sharpest warnings from American military officials to the Assad regime that the military option could become reality if government troops continue their brutal suppression of rebel forces.

“You'll always find military leaders to be somewhat cautious about the use of force, because we're never entirely sure what comes out on the other side. But that said, it may come to a point with Syria because of the atrocities," Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey told Fox News on Monday.

The Houla attacks were "reckless, inhumane and [a] deplorable course of action" for the Assad regime to take against its own people, Little said Tuesday.

However, Little dismissed the notion that the attacks or the overall escalation of violence in Syria have increased calls for military action inside the Pentagon.

"The rhetoric has been pretty consistent over time," Little said, regarding the department's stance that a diplomatic solution to depose Assad from power is the best possible outcome in Syria. 

Comments by Dempsey and others interpreted as a hardening of the U.S. position on Syria were simply a case of "semantics" and did not reflect any shift within the Obama administration on the issue, Little said.

"What we are witnessing in Syria are atrocities [and] that kind of violence by the regime needs to stop" via diplomatic measures, Little added. 

"We have been very consistent in this [administration] ... about calling a spade a spade," he said. 

He did admit, however, that DOD is continuing to explore "the full spectrum of options" available on Syria to the United States and its allies in the region.

Last April, U.S. and NATO leaders met to discuss the possible political and military fallout in Syria if Western powers decide to remove Assad by military force. 

However, Little made clear that ongoing work should not be interpreted as the Pentagon taking steps toward imminent military action in the country. 

"At the end of the day ... we have the responsibility to look at the full spectrum of options," Little said. "We will continue to develop those options in case they are requested."

While the administration has not yet made the request for those options, Little insinuated the White House could change its tune if the Syrian violence spills over into other countries in the region.

In April, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said Ankara was considering invoking Article 5 of the NATO charter after Assad forces fired into Turkish territory in pursuit of rebels who had fled across the border.

Article 5 claims that an attack against one NATO member can be considered an attack on the entire alliance.

That kind of action could open the door for a NATO-led attack on Assad's forces, similar to the campaign that removed former Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi.

Any decision on how the United States decides to move forward in Syria will be "made with U.S. interests in mind," according to Little. At the top of that list is preserving regional stability, he said.

The Middle East "is a very tough neighborhood," Little said, and Assad's war against the rebels "does have potentially destabilizing effects on the region [and] tensions can run high and on short notice" in that part of the world.