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ABOARD A U.S. MILITARY AIRCRAFT — The country's top military adviser said he viewed arming Syrian rebels as a potential option to hasten the end of the fighting and preserve the country's institutions, which are being ground down by civil war.
In his first public remarks since he acknowledged in congressional testimony that he and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta had backed a proposal to arm the rebels, Gen. Martin Dempsey provided fresh details about his thinking.
But Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the conversations several months ago were "conceptual" and no specific plan was under consideration.
He said a "menu of options" were discussed in an effort to determine which ones "should we begin to flesh out," he said.
Talking to reporters on a flight back from Afghanistan, Dempsey acknowledged that there would be a number of complexities to work out, including the lack of clarity into the opposition fighting the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
"Of the options that we've been considering they all hinge on a much clearer understanding of the environment than I believe we currently have," Dempsey said.
Washington is providing non-lethal aid to the rebels.
Panetta and Dempsey made the acknowledgment that they had backed a recommendation to arm rebels during a Senate hearing last week on the U.S. military reaction to the attack in Benghazi, Libya.
The White House rebuffed arming the rebels, and Panetta told lawmakers in the hearing that he ultimately supported President Obama's decision to provide only non-lethal aid.
Dempsey said the recommendation stemmed from an exploration of ways to hasten an end to fighting before the country's institutions collapse. "A failed state is defined by the collapse of its institutions," he said.
Analysts fear a failed state in Syria would destabilize the region and provide fertile ground for al-Qaida and other extremist groups.
The United States military experienced a similar challenge in Iraq where weak government institutions made stabilizing the country more difficult and fueled the insurgency.
Still, Dempsey left open the possibility the idea could be revisited. "No option to my knowledge has been entirely taken off the table," he said.