Joint Chiefs Chairman Dempsey offers bleak view of U.S. military options in Syria

McClatchy Washington BureauJuly 22, 2013 

— The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has told the Senate Armed Services Committee that establishing a no-fly zone over Syria would cost the U.S. $500 million to $1 billion a month and that it might not quell the conflict there because President Bashar Assad’s military primarily relies on artillery, not air power, for most of its offensives.

The no-fly zone scenario was one of several U.S. options that Army Gen. Martin Dempsey presented in a letter to Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., and Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the ranking Republican on the panel.

The letter, dated Friday and released Monday, was written at the senators’ request following a contentious committee hearing last week in which Levin and McCain were dissatisfied with Dempsey’s response to a question about whether he’d recommended U.S. intervention in Syria to President Barack Obama. Dempsey said such a decision was a civilian one, and that he had only discussed the miliary options with the president.

McCain vowed to block Dempsey’s nomination for a second term as joint chiefs chairman if he didn’t get sufficient answers. Neither McCain nor Levin commented Monday on Dempsey’s downbeat assessment of U.S. options, though they released a letter of their own in response, asking Dempsey for specifics about what options might change the military balance in Syria, where the civil war has killed more than 93,000 people on both sides.

Congress and the administration have yet to reach a consensus on how, or even whether, to provide weapons to the Syrian rebels, whose anti-Assad campaign is made up of as many as 1,200 largely independent groups, including some that are openly affiliated with al Qaida.

Only now have congressional intelligence committees signed off on a proposal the Obama administration made more than a month ago to have the CIA funnel unspecified arms and training to rebels aligned with the moderate Supreme Military Council, led by a defected Syrian general, Salim Idriss.

In a statement Monday, Mike Rogers, R-Mich., chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said his committee “has very strong concerns about the strength of the administration’s plans in Syria and its chances for success.”

“After much discussion and review, we got a consensus that we could move forward with what the administration’s plans and intentions are in Syria with committee reservations,” he said.

In describing the no-fly zone option, Dempsey said that the U.S. could use “lethal force to prevent the (Assad) regime from using its military aircraft to bomb and resupply,” and that such a move would likely result in “the near total elimination of the regime’s ability to bomb opposition strongholds and sustain its forces by air.”

But he said such an effort would cost $500 million and $1 billion a month and would run the risk of having U.S. boots on the ground if American jets were shot down by Syrian anti-aircraft systems.

“Risks include the loss of U.S. aircraft, which would require us to insert personnel recovery forces,” Dempsey wrote. “It may also fail to reduce the violence or shift momentum because the regime relies overwhelmingly on surface fires – mortars, artillery and missiles.”

Dempsey offered similarly bleak assessments of four other options.

He said using non-lethal forces to train, advise and assist opposition forces against Assad’s regime would require anywhere from several hundred to several thousand U.S. troops and could cost up to $500 million per year. He said the option would require “safe areas outside of Syria” as well as support from neighboring countries.

“Over time, the option would improve the opposition’s capabilities,” Dempsey wrote. The downsides, however, “include extremists gaining access to additional capabilities, retaliatory cross-border attacks, and insider attacks or inadvertent association with war crimes due to vetting difficulties,” he wrote.

Conducting limited standoff strikes – lethal hits against targets that enable Assad’s forces to conduct military operations and defend themselves – could be used to cripple or destroy Syria’s air defense, along with its naval forces and supporting military facilities. The price tag would be in the billions.

“Force requirements would include hundreds of aircraft, ships, submarines, and other enablers,” Dempsey wrote. “There is a risk that the regime could withstand limited strikes by dispersing its assets. Retaliatory attacks are also possible, and there is a probability for collateral damage impacting civilians and foreigners inside the country.”

Dempsey said lethal and non-lethal force could be used to create buffer zones, most likely across the borders with Turkey or Jordan. The zones could provide places for opposition groups to organize and train and serve as safe areas for humanitarian assistance. But the option would require a limited no-fly zone and thousands of U.S. ground forces, which would cost the U.S. over $1 billion per month.

“Risks are similar to the no-fly zone with the added problem of regime surface fires into the zones, killing more refugees due to their concentration,” Dempsey wrote. “The zones could also become operational bases for extremists.”

Finally, Dempsey detailed trying to control Syria’s chemical weapons to prevent Assad from using them. That would call for destroying Syria’s “massive stockpile, interdicting its movement and delivery, or by seizing and securing program components,” Dempsey wrote. Like the buffer zones, the option would mandate a no-fly zone, along with air and missile strikes involving hundreds of aircraft, ships and submarines. The move “could also average well over one billion dollars a month,” Dempsey wrote.

“The impact would be the control of some, but not all chemical weapons,” Dempsey wrote. “Our inability to fully control Syria’s storage and delivery system could also allow extremists to gain better access.”

Dempsey cautioned that a larger military focus on Syria could come at the price of preparedness elsewhere. “This is especially critical as we lose readiness due to budget cuts and fiscal uncertainty,” he wrote.

He also made reference to the disorganized Syrian civilian opposition, which has had little success in putting aside internal rivalries to prepare to govern Syria. “Should the regime’s institutions collapse in the absence of a viable opposition, we could inadvertently empower extremists or unleash the very chemical weapons we seek to control,” he said.

Email: wdouglas@mcclatchydc.com; twitter @williamdouglas

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