US military chiefs warn that Syria involvement would be ‘costly’
Pentagon says campaign to tilt civil war against Assad would be a vast undertaking
Members of the Free Syrian Army are seen through smoke as they walk along a damaged street filled with debris in Deir al-Zor on July 22nd, 2013. Photograph: Karam Jamal/Reuters
The Pentagon has provided Congress with its first detailed list of military options to stem the bloody civil war in Syria, suggesting that a campaign to tilt the balance from President Bashar Assad to the opposition would be a vast undertaking, costing billions of dollars, and could backfire on the United States.
The list of options - laid out in a letter from the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin E. Dempsey, to the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Carl Levin of Michigan - was the first time the military has explicitly described what it sees as the formidable challenge of intervening in the war.
It came as the White House, which has limited its military involvement to supplying the rebels with small arms and other weaponry, has begun implicitly acknowledging that Dr Assad might not be forced out of power anytime soon.
The options, which range from training opposition troops to conducting airstrikes and enforcing a no-fly zone over Syria, are not new.
But General Dempsey provided details about the logistics and the costs of each. He noted, for example, that long-range strikes on the Syrian government’s military targets would require “hundreds of aircraft, ships, submarines, and other enablers,” with a cost “in the billions”.
General Dempsey, the nation’s highest-ranking military officer, provided the unclassified, three-page letter at the request of Mr Levin, a Democrat, after testifying last week that he believed it was likely that Dr Assad would be in power a year from now.
On that day, the White House, for the first time, began publicly hedging its bets about Dr Assad.
After saying for nearly two years that Dr Assad’s days were numbered, press secretary Jay Carney said: “While there are shifts in momentum on the battlefield, Bashar al-Assad, in our view, will never rule all of Syria again.”
Those last four words represent a subtle but significant shift in the White House’s wording: an implicit acknowledgment that after recent gains by the government’s forces against an increasingly chaotic opposition, Dr Assad now seems likely to cling to power for the foreseeable future, if only over a portion of a divided Syria.
That prospect has angered advocates of intervention, including Senator John McCain, who had a testy exchange with Gen. Dempsey when the general testified before the Armed Services Committee about why the administration was not doing more to help the rebels.
The plan to supply the rebels with small arms and other weaponry is being run as a covert operation by the Central Intelligence Agency, and General Dempsey made no mention of it in his letter.
On Monday, Rep. Mike Rogers, who heads the House Intelligence Committee, said that despite “very strong concerns about the strength of the administration’s plans in Syria and its chances for success,” the panel had reached a consensus to move ahead with the White House’s strategy, without specifically mentioning the covert arms programme.
Senate Intelligence committee officials said last week that they had reached a similar position.
In an interview, Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN special envoy to Syria, expressed disappointment at the congressional approval.