WASHINGTON - The top U.S. military commander in Europe said Tuesday that several NATO countries are working on contingency plans for possible military action to end the two-year civil war in Syria as President Bashar Assad's regime accused U.S.-backed Syrian rebels of using chemical weapons.
The Obama administration rejected the Assad claim as a sign of desperation by a besieged government intent on drawing attention from its war atrocities - some 70,000 dead, more than 1 million refugees and 2.5 million people internally displaced.
A U.S. official said there was no evidence that either Assad forces or the opposition had used chemical weapons in an attack in northern Syria.
As the war enters its third year, the U.S. military, State Department officials and the U.N. high commissioner for refugees delivered a dire assessment of a deteriorating situation in Syria and the sober view that even if Assad leaves, the Middle East nation could slip into civil strife and ethnic cleansing.
"The Syrian situation continues to become worse and worse and worse," Adm. James Stavridis, the commander of U.S. European Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee. "No end in sight to a vicious civil war."
Stavridis, who is retiring soon, said a number of NATO nations are looking at a variety of military operations to end the deadlock and assist the opposition forces, including using aircraft to impose a no-fly zone, providing military assistance to the rebels and imposing arms embargoes.
As with U.S. and international involvement in Libya in 2011, a resolution from the U.N. Security Council and agreement among the alliance's 28 members would be necessary before NATO assumes a military role in Syria, Stavridis said.
"We are prepared if called upon to be engaged as we were in Libya," he said.
Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., asked whether there is any consideration of targeting Syria's air defenses. Stavridis simply said yes.
Stavridis said his opinion is that providing military assistance to the Syrian opposition "would be helpful in breaking the deadlock and bringing down the Assad regime."
Syria's state-run news agency said 25 people were killed in a chemical attack on the Khan al-Assad village in northern Aleppo province. It said 86 people were wounded, some critically, and published pictures of children and others on stretchers in what appeared to be a hospital ward.