WASHINGTON -- Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and the nation's top military leader, Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, delivered a sober assessment yesterday of Syria's sophisticated air defenses and its extensive stockpile of chemical weapons in a strategic reality check to the demand for U.S. military action to end President Bashar Assad's deadly crackdown on his people.

President Barack Obama's 2008 rival, Republican Sen. John McCain, has called for the president to launch airstrikes against Assad to force him out of power and end the bloodshed. The UN estimates that more than 7,500 Syrians have been killed, with hundreds more fleeing to neighboring nations.

Assad's regime did allow UN humanitarian chief Valerie Amos into Baba Amr yesterday; she found that most people already had fled after a military siege.

War-weary Republicans and Democrats have expressed serious reservations about U.S. military involvement in Syria.

House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said this week that the situation in Syria is too muddled and military action would be premature, an opinion shared by many House Republicans who challenged Obama last year for dispatching the military to protect Libyans battling to overthrow Moammar Gadhafi.

Panetta summed up the situation in stark terms as he and Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee.

"The fundamental issue that is before us is whether or not the United States will go in and act unilaterally in that part of the world, and engage in another war in the Muslim world unilaterally. Or whether or not we will work with others in determining what action we take," he said.

"Well, let me tell you what's wrong with your statement," McCain said. "You don't mention American leadership. Americans should lead in this. America should be standing up. America should be building coalitions." -- AP

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Uniondale gas station robbery ... Public lewdness arrest ... FeedMe: North Fork Credit: Newsday

Bus tickets controversy ... Uniondale gas station robbery ... Search continues at Heuermann's home ... Ken Buffa: Stunt pilot

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