Martin Dempsey cautious on Syria
By: Stephanie Gaskell
April 30, 2013 05:28 PM EDT
By: Stephanie Gaskell
April 30, 2013 05:28 PM EDT
The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff hit a cautionary note on Syria Tuesday, questioning just how effective U.S. military intervention might be in ending the two-year civil war there.
Still, Army Gen. Martin Dempsey said the Pentagon was pressing ahead with development of military options for President Barack Obama.
“Whether the military effect would produce the kind of outcome I think that not only members of Congress but all of us would desire — which is an end to the violence, some kind of political reconciliation among the parties and a stable Syria — that’s the reason I’ve been cautious about the application of the military instrument of power,” Dempsey told reporters during a luncheon hosted by the Christian Science Monitor.
“It’s not clear to me that it would produce that outcome,” he said.
The administration acknowledged last week there’s evidence that chemical weapons have been used in Syria — but it’s still unclear when, where and by whom. At a press conference at the White House on Tuesday, Obama reiterated the use chemical weapons would be a “game changer” but did not repeat his recent admonition that it would be a “red line” for U.S. and international action.
Dempsey, noting the Pentagon’s planning said, “Nothing I’ve heard in the last week or so has changed anything about the actions we’re taking as a military. We’ve been planning. We’ve been developing options. We are looking to determine whether these options remain valid as conditions change.”
“Now that doesn’t mean what you’ve heard over the last week wouldn’t change the policy calculus both in this capital and others,” he added. “But militarily our task has been to continue to plan, to continue to engage with partners in the region and to continue to refine options so that if we’re asked to implement any of them we’ll be ready to do that.”
The options, though, were less than desirable, he readily acknowledged.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and other members of Congress have been urging the establishment of a no-fly zone over Syria. And Dempsey said it’s doable, but not ideal.
First, Syria has a sophisticated air defense system, thanks to the Russians. “Now, the United States military has the capability to defeat that system — but it would be a greater challenge, take longer and require more resources,” Dempsey said. “To have a no-fly zone you simply don’t penetrate it — you have to control it. So it means that at some level you’d have to degrade the integrated air defense system.”
A no-fly zone also requires a complex personnel-recovery plan, he said. “So we would have to position resources that in the event of a pilot going down — either by hostile activity or by mechanical failure — that we’d have the ability to extract them from that situation,” he said.
And most importantly, there’s great concern that President Bashar Assad’s regime would fight back.
“I have to assume, as the military member with responsibility for these kind of activities, that the potential adversary isn’t just going to sit back and allow us to impose our will on them, that they could in fact take exception that we were imposing a no-fly zone and act outside of their borders with long-range rockets and missiles and artillery and even asymmetrical threats,” he said.
Dempsey also questioned just how effective a no-fly zone would be. About 10 percent of the casualties taken by the Syrian opposition are from air attacks, he said. “The other 90 percent are through direct fire or artillery,’ he went on, “so the question then becomes: If you eliminate one capability of a potential adversary, will you be inclined to find yourself in a position to be asked to do more against the rest?
“None of these reasons are reasons not to take action, as I’ve said from the start, but they all should be considered before we take that first step,” he said.
Despite budget cuts and ongoing sequestration, the general said, the military can afford to take action in Syria — at least in the short term.
“If we were asked to do something in Syria, your question is, ‘Do I have the capability and the capacity to do it?’ and the answer is yes,” he said. But any long-term commitment in Syria would require supplemental funding from Congress. “I can certainly get what I need to do something immediately,” he explained, “but to sustain it over time would require additional funding.”
Spending cuts are already affecting readiness across the services — something the Pentagon can’t afford if it’s going to take on another major military mission.
“Over time, unless we get our budget house in order — and I mean both us internally but also the government writ large — I will be concerned about atrophying skills and reduced readiness,” he said.
This article first appeared on POLITICO Pro at 5:14 p.m. on April 30, 2013.