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Contingency plans for Syria under way: US commander

– 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 – about 70,000 dead, more than 1 million refugees and 2.5 million people internally displaced.

While 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, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., said there was a “high probability” that the government had used the weapons.

“We need that final verification, but given everything we know over the last year and a half, I would come to the conclusion that they are either positioned for use, and ready to do that, or in fact have been used,” Rogers told CNN.

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 similar to the Balkans in the 1990s.

“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 said a number of NATO nations are looking at a variety of military options to end the deadlock and assist the opposition forces, including imposing 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.

But within individual member countries, the admiral said, “there’s a great deal of discussion” about lethal support to Syria, no-fly zones, arms embargoes and more. “It is moving individually within the nations, but it has not yet come into NATO as an overall NATO-type approach,” he said.

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