Senators John McCain and Carl Levin have demanded answers from General Martin Dempsey on Syria. Can they handle the truth?
In open hearings before the Armed Services Committee last Thursday, McCain asked the Joint Chiefs chairman, “Do you believe the continued costs and risks of our inaction in Syria are now worse for our national security interests than the costs and risks associated with limited military action?” He responded, “Senator, I am in favor of building a moderate opposition and supporting it.” But, he continued, “The question whether to support it with direct kinetic strikes is a decision for our elected officials, not for the senior military leader of the nation.”
This outraged McCain, who threatened to put a hold on Dempsey’s nomination for a second term. Levin, the committee’s Democratic chairman, signed a joint letter with McCain demanding detailed answers.
As I’ve previously argued, Dempsey was right to refuse to offer public policy recommendations that might undermine his elected commander-in-chief. But Congress has a right to ask for the Joint Chiefs’ assessments of the costs and benefits of various military options and Dempsey provided those in a letter to Levin the very next day, the text of which was made public Monday night.
Dempsey reiterated that “The decision over whether to introduce military force is a political one that our Nation entrusts to its civilian leaders” but allowed “I also understand that you deserve my best military advice on how military force could be used in order to decide whether it should be used.”
He then noted the current situation: “At this time, the military’s role is limited to helping deliver humanitarian assistance, providing security assistance to Syria’s neighbors, and providing nonlethal assistance to the opposition.” Specifically, “Patriot batteries are deployed to Turkey and Jordan for their defense against missile attack. An operational headquarters and additional capabilities, including F-16s, are positioned to defend Jordan.”
But, naturally, the Joint Staff has conducted contingency planning and Dempsey declares that the Pentagon is “also prepared for the options described below.”
Train, Advise, and Assist the Opposition. This option uses nonlethal forces to train and advise the opposition on tasks ranging from weapons employment to tactical planning. We could also offer assistance in the form of intelligence and logistics. The scale could range from several hundred to several thousand troops with the costs varying accordingly, but estimated at $500 million per year initially. The option requires safe areas outside Syria as well as support from our regional partners. Over time, the impact would be the improvement in opposition capabilities. Risks include extremists gaining access to additional capabilities, retaliatory crossborder attacks, and insider attacks or inadvertent association with war crimes due to vetting difficulties.
Conduct Limited Stand-off Strikes. This option uses lethal force to strike targets that enable the regime to conduct military operations, proliferate advanced weapons, and defend itself. Potential targets include high-value regime air defense, air, ground, missile, and naval forces as well as the supporting military facilities and command nodes. Stand-off air and missile systems could be used to strike hundreds of targets at a tempo of our choosing. Force requirements would include hundreds of aircraft, ships, submarines, and other enablers. Depending on duration, the costs would be in the billions. Over time, the impact would be the significant degradation of regime capabilities and an increase in regime desertions. 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.
Establish a No-Fly Zone. This option uses lethal force to prevent the regime from using its military aircraft to bomb and resupply. It would extend air superiority over Syria by neutralizing the regime’s advanced, defense integrated air defense system. It would also shoot down adversary aircraft and strike airfields, aircraft on the ground, and supporting infrastructure. We 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. Impacts would likely include the near total elimination of the regime’s ability to bomb opposition strongholds and sustain its forces by air. Risks include the loss of U.S. aircraft, which would require us to insert personnel recovery forces. It may also fail to reduce the violence or shift the momentum because the regime relies overwhelmingly on surface fires-mortars, artillery, and missiles.
Establish Buffer Zones. This option uses lethal and nonlethal force to protect specific geographic areas, most likely across the borders with Turkey or Jordan. The opposition could use these zones to organize and train. They could also serve as safe areas for the distribution of humanitarian assistance. Lethal force would be required to defend the zones against air, missile, and ground attacks. This would necessitate the establishment of a limited no-fly zone, with its associated resource requirements. Thousands of U.S. ground forces would be needed, even if positioned outside Syria, to support those physically defending the zones. A limited no-fly zone coupled with U.S. ground forces would push the costs over one billion dollars per month. Over time, the impact would be an improvement in opposition capabilities. Human suffering could also be reduced, and some pressure could be lifted off Jordan and Turkey. 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. The zones could also become operational bases for extremists.
Control Chemical Weapons. This option uses lethal force to prevent the use or proliferation of chemical weapons. We do this by destroying portions of Syria’s massive stockpile, interdicting its movement and delivery, or by seizing and securing program components. At a minimum, this option would call for a no-fly zone as well as air and missile strikes involving hundreds of aircraft, ships, submarines, and other enablers. Thousands of special operations forces and other ground forces would be needed to assault and secure critical sites. Costs could also average well over one billion dollars per month. The impact would be the control of some, but not all chemical weapons. 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.
It’s rather immediately obvious that these options range from not very good to downright awful. Nor are either of the extremes—doing nothing or a full-out invasion of Syria followed by an occupation force—considered.
Dempsey notes, correctly, that none of the options ought be “considered in isolation,” arguing that “It would be better if they were assessed and discussed in the context of an overall whole-of-government strategy for achieving our policy objectives in coordination with our allies and partners.”
After all that, the chairman finally comes as close as he’s going to in offering an actual policy recommendation: “To this end, I have supported a regional approach that would isolate the conflict to prevent regional destabilization and weapons proliferation. At the same time, we should help develop a moderate opposition— including their military capabilities—while maintaining pressure on the Assad regime.” To say that this raises more questions than it answers is a decided understatement.
Writing in yesterday’s Washington Post, CSIS strategist Anthony Cordesman warned that, “What started as a civil conflict more than two years ago now threatens to fuel a major conflict between Sunnis and Shiites throughout the Muslim world. The conflict is dividing Lebanon and giving Hezbollah and other extremists a larger foothold there. It is also creating problems in Jordan and Turkey, pushing Iraq toward civil war and making Iraq’s Shiite leadership more dependent on Iran.”
The status quo, then, is hardly without risks of its own. But Dempsey seems to believe that keeping things from getting worse is about the best we can hope for. He notes that, “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.” He observes, “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.”
The chairman recognizes that this isn’t what anyone in Washington wants to hear. But he begins with a simple premise: “As we weigh our options, we should be able to conclude with some confidence that the use of force will move us toward the intended outcome.” None of the options on the table, at least as described in Dempsey’s letter, inspire such confidence.
Furthermore, while the crisis in Syria may well have serious spill-over effects, so might more significant American military action. Dempsey reminds us that, “We must also understand risk—not just to our forces, but to our other global responsibilities,” adding, “This is especially critical as we lose readiness due to budget cuts and fiscal uncertainty. Some options may not be feasible in time or cost without compromising our security elsewhere.”
Indeed, we’re already reducing our forward-deployed seapower and canceling classes at the Naval Academy in the wake of sequestration. Another overseas intervention costing billions of dollars a month will require some combination of greater cuts in other parts of the defense budget, radical cuts in our social safety net, significant tax increases, or increased government borrowing. Given Congress’ inability to come to a compromise to avoid the sequester—which was specifically designed to be so stupid and painful as to give them no choice but to work out their differences—it’s highly unlikely that they’ll consider any of those options palatable.
James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council. This essay was originally published by RealClearDefense.