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WASHINGTON — Secretary of State John Kerry said Friday that the United States is evaluating new options to halt Syria's civil war, but he refused to weigh into administration debates over whether to arm the rebels fighting President Bashar Assad's regime.
In his first news conference as secretary, Kerry said the Obama administration was looking at the crisis anew and hoping to find a diplomatic solution. But he sidestepped specifically addressing a question over providing military assistance to the anti-Assad opposition.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Congress on Thursday that they had recommended offering military support to the rebels but were rebuffed by President Obama.
"My sense right now is that everybody in the administration and people in other parts of the world are deeply distressed by the continued violence in Syria," Kerry told reporters alongside Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird. "There's too much killing. There's too much violence. And we obviously want to try to find a way forward."
"We are evaluating now," he said. "We're taking a look at what steps, if any, diplomatic particularly, might be able to be taken in an effort to try to reduce that violence and deal with that situation."
Kerry's suggestion of a possible new American approach comes after Panetta and Dempsey gave the Senate a glimpse of the internal disagreements over how forcefully the U.S. should respond to violence that has killed some 60,000 people in the last two years. Both military leaders said they supported providing weapons to the rebels, but that the president made the final decision against such action.
Washington has struggled throughout Syria's civil war to come up with a policy that would help end the bloodshed and hasten Assad's departure. Obama called on the Syrian leader to leave power in August 2011, but the United States has refused to entertain any notion of military intervention by patrolling Syria's skies to prevent government airstrikes or by handing out advanced weaponry to Syrian rebels.
U.S. officials have noted that, unlike in Libya, there is no U.N. mandate for any direct American military involvement such as a no-fly zone. And officials believe any plan to provide weapons would only further militarize a conflict that needs to be resolved with some sort of political transition. There is also fear that if the weapons end up in the hands of terrorists and extremist groups they can later turn on nearby Israel or other U.S. allies and interests in the region.
Kerry said he wasn't privy to all the details of the administration's internal deliberations.
"I don't know what the discussions were in the White House and who said what, and I'm not going to go backward," Kerry said at the end of his first full week in his new job. "This is a new administration now, the president's second term, I'm a new secretary of state and we're going forwards from this point."
But Kerry underscored the numerous challenges hindering the possibility of a more activist approach, citing the threat of the rebel group Jabhat al-Nusra — the Obama administration has designated it a foreign terrorist organization — and the influx of fighters from al-Qaida in Iraq. "It is a very complicated and very dangerous situation," he said. "And everybody understands it is a place that has chemical weapons, and we are deeply concerned about that."
In the past months, several officials in the State Department, Defense Department and Central Intelligence Agency have said that giving weapons to carefully vetted rebels could help blunt the influence of extremists like al-Nusra among the rebel ranks. Such U.S. assistance, according to proponents, might also be remembered in a post-Assad Syria and provide the United States a new partner in a place that it has generally met hostility during the four decades of the Assad family dynasty.
The counterargument maintained that giving weapons posed too great a risk, according to other officials who also spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to talk publicly about internal matters. The White House, in particular, was wary in the weeks preceding Obama's re-election and hasn't changed its mind because the nonextremist opposition still lacks cohesiveness and because there is no compelling national security reason for direct US weapons supplies.
It's unclear whether Kerry has formed his own opinion. Asked during his confirmation hearing last month about new options for Syria, he said he needed to first see the administration's contingency plans.
"What I do know is that there are a lot of weapons there," he said. "There are people in the Gulf, and you know who they are, who are not hesitating to provide weapons. And that's one of the reasons, together with the fact that al-Nusra has been introduced to the equation that the movement on the ground is faster than the movement in the politics."
Looking ahead to nuclear talks later this month between Iran and senior officials from the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany, Kerry warned Iran to come prepared to talk seriously about concerns over its nuclear program.
If Iran does what it needs to do to prove its nuclear intentions are peaceful, Kerry said the international community is prepared to respond positively. If not, he said Iran will only face increased international isolation.
Kerry reminded the Iranian leadership that Obama has taken no options off the table, including military force, to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
"Iran has a choice," he said. "They have to prove to the world that it is peaceful and we are prepared to sit responsibly and negotiate how they can do that and how we can all be satisfied."
Associated Press writer Matthew Lee contributed to this report.