(WASHINGTON) — In a letter to Congress, Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has laid out in unclassified fashion the U.S. military’s options for Syria that have been presented to the White House for consideration.
He also cautioned about unintended consequences of U.S. military action.
“Once we take action, we should be prepared for what comes next,” he said. “Deeper involvement is hard to avoid.”
The options and Dempsey’s concerns for them in Syria are contained in a letter he sent Friday to Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., who had requested an unclassified assessment of potential options for Syria.
During Thursday’s confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Dempsey and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz, had a tense exchange, during which McCain said Dempsey had not provided the committee with adequate information about U.S. military options in Syria. At the hearing, Committee Chairman Levin asked Dempsey to provide an assessment about U.S. military options.
Following the hearing, McCain told reporters that he would place a hold on Dempsey’s nomination to serve another two-year term as the nation’s top military officer unless he received more information from Dempsey.
In his July 19 letter, Dempsey listed the five U.S. military options as: Train, Advise and Assist the Opposition; Conduct Limited Stand-off Strikes; Establish a No-Fly Zone; Establish Buffer Zones; Control Chemical Weapons.
He pointed out that the use of the options would be a political decision that should not be carried out lightly and would be, “no less than an act of war.”
As Syria’s civil war has raged for two years, the Obama administration has called on Syrian President Bashar al Assad to step aside to make way for a political transition. U.S. military options have always been seen as limited and have taken a back-burner to the administration’s pursuit of a diplomatic track and growing support for Syrian opposition forces. Just last month, the administration announced it would provide some Syrian rebels with lethal aid that would include small arms and ammunition.
Dempsey repeated a point he has made in the past — that the unintended consequences on the region should be weighed if military force is to be used.
“We should also act in accordance with the law, and to the extent possible, in concert with our allies and partners to share the burden and solidify the outcome,” said Dempsey.
According to Dempsey, establishing a no-fly zone over Syria would require “hundreds of ground and sea-based aircraft, intelligence and electronic warfare support, and enablers for refueling and communications. Estimated costs are $500 million initially, averaging as much as a billion dollars per month over the course of a year. ”
The risks, he added, are that American jets could be downed and, “it may also fail to reduce the violence or shift the momentum because the regime relies overwhelmingly on surface fires — mortars, artillery, and missiles.
Controlling Syria’s large chemical weapons stockpile, he said, would require the use of lethal force to secure the sites, which can be done by, “destroying portions of Syria’s massive stockpile, interdicting its movement and delivery, or by seizing and securing program components.”
Thousands of special operations forces and other ground forces would be needed to assault and secure critical sites, and a no-fly zone would also be required. Costs could average well over $1 billion per month.
“The impact would be the control of some, but not all chemical weapons,” said Dempsey. “It would also help prevent their further proliferation into the hands of extremist groups. Our inability to fully control Syria’s storage and delivery systems could allow extremists to gain better access. Risks are similar to the no-fly zone with the added risk of U.S. boots on the ground.”
Read the full text of the letter here.
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