By David Alexander
ABOARD A U.S. MILITARY AIRCRAFT (Reuters) - The top U.S. military officer said on Sunday he favored the idea of arming Syrian rebels during discussions within the Obama administration about how to help resolve the country's civil war, but there was never a specific plan under review.
General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he thought arming the rebels might help end the crisis more quickly and avert the collapse of government institutions, which could lead Syria to become a failed state.
"Conceptually I thought if there were a way to resolve the military situation more quickly it would work to the benefit not only of the Syrian people but also us," Dempsey told reporters aboard his plane from Afghanistan, where he attended a change-of-command ceremony for NATO-led forces.
"A failed state is defined by the collapse of its institutions," he said. "And so conceptually we thought about ways to prevent that from happening. Conceptually I was in agreement. Now there were enormous complexities involved that we still haven't resolved."
Dempsey and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta acknowledged their support for arming Syrian rebels during a Senate hearing last week, the first time they had been queried about the issue.
The CIA and State Department had recommended arming the rebels last year, but President Barack Obama ultimately decided against pursuing the option.
The revelation that Dempsey and Panetta had supported the idea along with CIA and State Department officials underlined the divisions in the administration over how to deal with the Syrian crisis.
IDENTIFYING THE OPPOSITION
Lawmakers including Senator John McCain have been critical of the administration's decision against taking more aggressive action.
So far the administration has limited support to providing non-lethal aid for rebels in the 22-month-old conflict, which has killed an estimated 60,000 people.
A disparate group of rebel factions are fighting to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whose troops are well-trained and armed. U.S. officials still have not been able to get a clear picture of all the groups and their ideological leanings.
"We still have a challenge identifying who among the opposition, if they achieved a position of dominance, would commit themselves to the longer-term objectives of establishing a representative government, an end to violence, preservation of the institutions so that Syria doesn't become a failed state," he said.
Dempsey said he did not believe that the possibility of arming Syrian rebels had been completely ruled out by the Obama administration.
"No one has taken any option off the table in any conversation in which I've been involved," he said.
Dempsey declined to say whether he still supported arming the rebels.
"What I will say is of the options that we have been considering, they all hinge on a much clearer understanding of the environment than I believe we currently have."
Dempsey said the United States was continuing to work with Israel, Turkey and Jordan to address common interests and concerns related to the Syrian conflict, from proliferation of ballistic missiles and humanitarian issues to chemical and biological weapons.
He said the United States still believes Syrian chemical weapons are secure.
"I want to be clear that we don't have persistent or perfect visibility. On the occasions when we have noted movement, they've been movements that appear to us to be intended to secure them, not to use them. But our ability to have a completely clear understanding is somewhat limited."
(Editing by Xavier Briand)