News Column

Top US Military Leader Warns About Syria Intervention

July 23, 2013

U.S. military action in the Syrian civil war would likely escalate quickly and result in "unintended consequences," the top U.S. military officer told senators.

"Once we take action, we should be prepared for what comes next. Deeper involvement is hard to avoid," Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey said in a letter to Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich.

Dempsey -- being considered by the committee for another two-year term as the principal military adviser to President Obama, the National Security Council, the Homeland Security Council and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel -- wrote the letter at the request of Levin and committee member John McCain, R-Ariz.

McCain threatened to block Dempsey's nomination until the Army general provided his personal opinion on the relative merits of different types of U.S. military action in Syria.

The July 19 letter -- available at -- was the first time the military has explicitly described what it sees as the formidable challenge of intervening in the 28-month-old conflict.

Troops loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad have in recent weeks seized the momentum in the war that has killed more than 100,000 and confounded U.S. policymakers.

Dempsey, whose current term expires Sept. 30, told McCain at a hearing last week he was reluctant to publicly discuss military options in Syria while the White House was still reviewing them.

"It would be inappropriate for me to try to influence the decision with me rendering an opinion in public about what kind of force we should use," Dempsey testified.

McCain and Levin have advocated for a stronger response to the civil war in Syria.

Dempsey's letter, based on his "unclassified assessment," said establishing a no-fly zone to protect Syrian rebels -- a move McCain has advocated -- "would require hundreds of ground and sea-based aircraft, intelligence and electronic warfare support," with the cost "averaging as much as $1 billion per month over the course of a year."

Thousands of U.S. troops would be needed to create and defend so-called buffer zones to protect neighboring countries such as Turkey and Jordan, Dempsey said.

These zones, requiring a limited no-fly zone coupled with U.S. ground forces, "would push the costs over $1 billion per month," Dempsey said.

Controlling Syrian chemical weapons would minimally "call for a no-fly zone as well as air and missile strikes involving hundreds of aircraft, ships, submarines and other enablers," Dempsey said.

"Thousands of special operations forces and other ground forces would be needed to assault and secure critical [chemical weapons] sites. Costs could also average well over $1 billion per month," he said.

Obama, concluding Assad-regime troops used chemical weapons against rebel forces, announced last month Washington would for the first time provide the rebels with small arms and ammunition.

Russia said two weeks ago it determined chemical weapons were used by Syrian rebels, not the Assad regime.

Dempsey's letter also addressed limited airstrikes, which he said would require "hundreds of aircraft, ships, submarines and other enablers," with costs running "in the billions," depending on their duration.

The result would be little more than a "significant degradation of regime capabilities and an increase in regime desertions," Dempsey said, adding the Assad regime could withstand the strikes.

The least-risky option -- training and advising rebel fighters -- would initially cost $500 million a year, Dempsey said. It would involve "several hundred to several thousand troops" and risk arming al-Qaida-aligned extremist forces among the rebels or "inadvertent [U.S.] association with war crimes due to vetting difficulties."

Dempsey said the various options he outlined "would likely further the narrow military objective of helping the opposition and placing more pressure on the regime."

"We have learned from the past 10 years, however, that it is not enough to simply alter the balance of military power without careful consideration of what is necessary in order to preserve a functioning state.

"We must anticipate and be prepared for the unintended consequences of our action," he said. "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."

McCain and Levin had no immediate public comment about the letter.

Source: Copyright UPI 2013

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