By Patricia Zengerle
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. senators, including some of President Barack Obama's fellow Democrats, pushed the White House on Thursday to shift its policy and provide lethal military assistance to rebels waging a civil war against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
It is time for Washington to do more to oust Assad and end a two-year conflict in which more than 70,000 people have been killed and millions displaced, they said at a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Sentiment is growing in the United States and internationally that more should be done in Syria.
"Shouldn't we do something to prevent this massive slaughter that's going on?" Senator John McCain asked during a heated exchange that ended with the Arizona Republican walking out of the hearing. He did so while Elizabeth Jones, the acting assistant secretary of state for near eastern affairs was replying to one of his questions.
McCain has long called for the United States to provide military assistance, including a no-fly zone, in Syria to assist the rebels.
Robert Ford, the U.S. ambassador to Syria, defended Washington's approach and pointed out that Assad has lost territory to the rebels.
"Yes, there has been an erosion of his position," McCain shot back. "But how long will it take? How many have to die? How many have to be tortured?"
Obama's administration has stepped up humanitarian aid, but has stopped short of providing lethal assistance.
Proponents of U.S. military assistance say it will counteract the influence of Islamic militants, ensure chemical weapons do not end up in the wrong hands and help to counter refugees' anger at Washington for doing too little.
"I believe the time has come to consider providing, in some form, military aid to the opposition," said Democratic Senator Robert Menendez, the committee chairman.
"It should include weapons, but stop short of those weapons that could threaten our own interests if they fall into the wrong hands, like shoulder-fired missiles," Menendez said.
At his Senate confirmation hearing earlier on Thursday, Air Force General Philip Breedlove, Obama's nominee to become NATO's supreme allied commander, gave very qualified support to the idea of arming Syrian rebels.
He stressed the need to first ensure that the arms do not fall into the wrong hands, implicitly pointing to concerns that have kept the Obama administration from taking that step.
"If we could assure that the weapons were going to the right people and that we would not have to face them in the future, that would be helpful to removing the regime," Breedlove said.
Asked about the possibility of creating a safe zone in northern Syria, Breedlove acknowledged that the Patriot missile batteries deployed to Turkey by the United States and NATO allies could be used to "project power."
But he noted a series of drawbacks. He said the missiles' range was limited and that they would stop defending Turkish airspace if directed over Syria. Creating a safe zone in northern Syria would also require use of other assets, including fixed-wing aircraft, and knocking out Syrian air defense systems, he said.
"The fact of the matter of being able to project power into Syria is physically possible. There is both good and bad, at creating this impression into Syria," Breedlove said.
(Additional reporting by Phil Stewart; editing by Christopher Wilson)