REPORTING FROM WASHINGTON -- Marine Corps Gen. James N. Mattis, the top U.S. commander in the Middle East, said Tuesday that embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad is likely to remain in power "for some time," and played down talk of American military intervention on the side of the Syrian rebels.
Facing calls from members of Congress to assist the Syrian opposition, Mattis said that providing arms to the rebels is "perhaps an option" for the U.S. and its allies. But he warned that as a first step American officials would need better information on the rebels, in part to avoid having weapons fall into the hands of Al Qaeda militants.
"I suggest we find out who these people are, and I guarantee we will find out it's not Al Qaeda," Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) told Mattis at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing.
There is little sign that the Obama administration is considering American military assistance for the rebels. Mattis said that any U.S. aid should be done as part of an international coalition.
He said under questioning that Iran is providing Assad's regime with arms, eavesdropping equipment and intelligence operatives to put down the yearlong rebellion.
"It is a full-throated effort by Iran to keep Assad there and oppress his own people," Mattis said, adding: "The longer this goes on, the more potential there is for Al Qaeda and for a full-scale civil war."
Syria's advanced air defense system would make setting up a "no-fly" zone challenging, Mattis said. He also raised concerns about proposals for the U.S. and its allies to create "safe havens" for the opposition.
"I have not been asked to do detailed planning on" military options for Syria, he said, declining to further discuss contingency plans in an open hearing.
-- David S. Cloud
Photo: Marine Corps Gen. James N. Mattis testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee on July 10, 2010. Credit: Alex Brandon / Associated Press