American air strikes against Syrian forces killing civilians would be a "mistake" without a Security Council mandate and the backing of a broad international coalition, senior Obama administration officials said Wednesday.
"What doesn't make sense is to take unilateral action right now," U.S. Defence Secretary Leon Panetta said, rejecting a growing clamour for air strikes against the tanks and heavy weapons deployed by Syria's President Bashar al-Assad to kill thousands of his own people in a brutal, ongoing campaign to crush the pro-democracy movement.
Republican Senator John McCain, the first leading American political figure to call for U.S. air strikes against Mr. al-Assad's forces, challenged Mr. Panetta. "How many additional civilian lives would have to be lost in order to convince you that the military measures of this kind that we are proposing are necessary to end the killing? ... How many more have to die? Ten thousand more? Twenty thousand more?"
But Mr. Panetta said military options are being explored, adding the United States is trying to foster a mandate for collective intervention.
U.S. President Barack Obama has already ruled out solo American military action. "For us to take military action unilaterally, as some have suggested, …. is a mistake," he said.
The first international observers managed Wednesday to reach the shattered and now mostly deserted Homs' neighbourhood of Baba Amr, a rebel stronghold in central Syria, destroyed by weeks of relentless shelling.
Accompanied by Syrian officials, the United Nations humanitarian envoy Valerie Amos was allowed only 45 minutes in Baba Amr, more than a week after opposition forces fled. "They found that most inhabitants had left Baba Amr to areas that have been already visited by the [International Committee of the Red Cross]and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent in the past week," the Red Cross said in statement.
Several dozen more deaths were reported Wednesday as sporadic Syrian security operations continued throughout the country. More than 7,500 have died since last spring but independent confirmation of violent incidents is usually impossible because the al-Assad regime has largely succeeded in keeping foreign media out of Syria.
Deadlock at the Security Council – where Russia and China have vetoed resolutions harshly critical of the al-Assad regime – has thwarted Western and Arab League efforts to create a mandate for international intervention.
But while some call for a repeat of the controversial Libyan bombing campaign – where Western warplanes along with a handful from Arab nations pounded Moammar Gadhafi's forces for months – the Syrian situation is vastly different.
Libya was isolated geographically and politically, and NATO warplanes could easily operate from nearby Sicilian bases.
Syria lies at the heart of the Middle East, counts Russia and Iran among its close allies and has a far bigger, more potent military. Significantly, both Moscow and Beijing believe the "protection of civilians" mandate they agreed to last year for Libya was expanded and abused by Washington and its allies to wage an air war in support of rebels seeking regime change.
"Syria is a far different demographic, ethnic, religious mix than it was in Libya," said General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff. However, he confirmed that – as is routine – military planners were preparing a range of options for Mr. Obama.
Rejecting accusations that it has failed to lead on Syria, the Obama administration insists it is doing what can be done. "This administration has led in Iraq. We've led in Afghanistan. We've led in the war on terrorism. We led in Libya. And we're leading in Syria," Mr. Panetta insisted.
Some have proposed arming the nascent and disorganized Syrian rebel forces but that too was rejected by Mr. Panetta.
"One thing we've found in this region of the world is that once you provide these arms, there are no boundaries as to where they could wind up," Mr. Panetta told a Senate hearing. "We saw that happen in Libya and we are seeing evidence of some of the weapons used there popping up in the Sinai."