Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the most senior officer in the US Army, gave the broad outlines of American military contingency plans for Syria in a letter to members of the US Senate’s Armed Forces Committee, including Senator John McCain, a leading advocate of US intervention in Syria.
McCain has previously threatened to veto Dempsey’s reappointment as the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff—who oversee the administration of the armed forces and advise the president on military matters—unless he shared his assessment of the Syrian crisis with legislators.
Dempsey outlined five possible options for American intervention in Syria: training and equipping opposition forces, air strikes against Syrian military targets, imposing a no-fly zone, creating ‘safe zones’ inside Syria free of government forces, and finally inserting forces to capture or destroy the Syrian government’s chemical weapons stockpiles.
In the letter, Dempsey outlined the likely costs of each option, the forces required, and the downsides of each. Training the opposition was the cheapest option, at an estimated cost of USD 500 million a year, with most of the others costing approximately twice as much every month.
In regards to a no-fly zone, an option pushed by some American legislators, Dempsey’s comments echoed those of the former chief of staff of the British armed forces, Gen. Sir David Richards, who warned last week that a no-fly zone alone would have little impact.
Dempsey wrote: “It may . . . fail to reduce the violence or shift the momentum because the regime relies overwhelmingly on surface fires—mortars, artillery, and missiles.”
In the letter, Dempsey also warned that any intervention would be “no less than an act of war,” and that while any of the five would put pressure of the government of Bashar Al-Assad, it would be necessary to “anticipate and be prepared for the unintended consequences of our action,” and that once action begins, “deeper involvement is hard to avoid.”
He cautioned that any military action should seek to preserve the integrity of the Syrian state, warning, “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.”
Rather than recommending any of the five options, Dempsey said that any action should be taken as part of a wider political strategy for ending the violence in Syria, which Dempsey referred to as “a complex sectarian war,” which has killed almost 100,000 people so far, according to UN estimates.
Dempsey wrote: “Too often, these options are considered in isolation. 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.”
The first option presented by General Dempsey—training and arming the Syria opposition—came a step closer to being realized on Monday, with a report in the New York Times that congressional intelligence committees had voted to approve the use of some CIA funds to supply arms to the rebels battling to overthrow Bashar Al-Assad.
The paper reported that the weapons would be supplied to vetted Syrian rebels together with some training and intelligence information within the next few weeks, with much of the material and assistance supplied through neighboring Jordan, where the US has already stationed fighter jets and air defense missiles.
The move had been approved despite “very strong concerns about the strength of the administration’s plans in Syria and its chances for success,” said Representative Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.
Others warned it risked dragging the US into war or expressed concerns that the weapons may find their way to jihadist groups linked to Al-Qaeda, said the paper.