Aamer Madhani, USA TODAY
WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration remains hesitant to consider even limited U.S. military intervention in Syria because it believes rebels fighting the Bashar Assad regime don't support American interests, according to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
In a letter to Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., Gen. Martin Dempsey wrote that the U.S. military could destroy Syria's air force, negating the Syrian president Assad's ability to attack Syrian rebels. But Dempsey warned that such a move "would also escalate and potentially further commit the United States to the conflict."
"Syria today is not about choosing between two sides but rather about choosing one among many sides," Dempsey wrote to Engel, whose office released the letter on Wednesday. "It is my belief that the side we choose must be ready to promote their interests and ours when the balance shifts in their favor. Today, they are not."
The dour assessment from Dempsey comes as Syrian rebel groups made fresh claims on Wednesday that government forces loyal to Assad carried out a "poisonous gas" attack near the capital Damascus that has left hundreds dead.
It also comes more than two months after the White House confirmed that it had determined that the Syrian government has deployed chemical weapons against opposition groups, crossing what President Obama had previously called a "red line." After the confirmation of chemical weapons use in June, White House officials said that the U.S. would provide the rebels some direct military aid for the first time.
But thus far, the Obama administration has been reluctant to provide much more than humanitarian aid to the rebel groups, which include some extremist elements with ties to Al Qaeda.
Engel has proposed that the U.S. military make limited air strikes against Syrian defense interests to help turn the tide in a civil war that has left more than 100,000 dead. The lawmaker expressed disappointment in Dempsey's comments.
"I remain deeply unsatisfied with our current strategy in Syria -- as we stand on the sidelines when the turmoil in that country continues to claim thousands of lives and sow instability throughout the region," said Engel, the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs committee. "I reject the notion that our involvement in Syria would simply constitute 'choosing sides' between one armed group and another."