Gen. Martin Dempsey Warns U.S. Intervention in Syria Will Trigger Wider War

Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff: Intervening on behalf of rebels risks widening conflict

Gen. Martin Dempsey / AP
July 23, 2013

U.S. military intervention in Syria on behalf of Syria rebels fighting the Bashar al-Assad regime risks embroiling the United States and states in the region in a wider conflict, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said in a letter to Congress.

Army Gen. Martin Dempsey provided a mainly negative assessment of U.S. military intervention and warned that joining the war in Syria could assist Islamist extremists, help them gain access to chemical weapons, and further erode U.S. military readiness, already suffering from sharp defense budget cuts.

Using force is "no less than an act of war," Dempsey stated in the July 19 letter, adding that any use of force should be based on confidence that it will achieve the U.S. policy of ousting the Assad regime.

"We must also understand risk—not just to our forces, but to our other global responsibilities," Dempsey said. "This is especially critical as we lose readiness due to budget cuts and fiscal uncertainty."

Some of the military options for Syria may not be feasible without compromising U.S. security elsewhere, he said.

"Once we take action, we should be prepared for what comes next," he said. "Deeper involvement is hard to avoid."

A U.S. official said the four star general’s warning about deeper involvement suggests that U.S. involvement in Syria will trigger a war with Iran. Tehran is backing the Assad regime with both weapons and proxy fighters from the Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah.

"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," Dempsey said, in a veiled reference to the chaos in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein, and more recently in Libya after the ouster of Muammar Gaddafi.

Dempsey also warned of the unintended consequences of military intervention, noting specifically that if the Damascus regime collapses without a viable opposition "we could inadvertently empower extremists or unleash the very chemical weapons we seek to control."

After several months of steady Syrian rebel gains against government forces, the tide of the civil war is beginning to shift back in favor of the regime, according to U.S. officials.

The rebels also have begun to fracture into Islamist and secular camps, with al Qaeda-linked groups gaining power and turning against secular rebels.

Islamist rebels killed a key Free Syrian Army commander in an ambush last week. The Free Syrian Army, made up of defecting Syrian army soldiers and officers, is the key rebel group that would receive U.S. and other western backing.

The al-Nusra Front is the main al Qaeda-linked rebel group that has ties to al Qaeda in neighboring Iraq.

Dempsey provided the unclassified letter and stated, "I am mindful that deliberations are ongoing within our government over the further role of the United States in this complex sectarian war."

Currently, the U.S. military is helping deliver humanitarian aid and providing security assistance to Syria’s neighbors, including Patriot missile defenses in Turkey and Jordan and F-16 jets positioned to defend Jordan, he said.

Dempsey outlined U.S. military options currently being discussed inside government in a letter to Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D., Mich.) on Friday.

According to the letter, U.S. military options under consideration include:

  • Training and assisting Syrian rebels with several hundred to several thousand troops at a cost of about $500 million a year;
  • Conducting limited "stand-off" missile and air strikes against "hundreds" of Syrian military facilities, advanced weapons depots and defense facilities. The operations would involve "hundreds" of aircraft, ships, submarines and other forces. Cost estimates would be "in the billions." Syrian retaliatory attacks and collateral damage would be a likely byproduct;
  •  Setting up a "no-fly" air exclusion zone aimed at preventing the Assad regime from conducting bombing strikes and resupply missions. The no-fly zone would involve "thousands" of troops and cost initially $500 million and then $1 billion a month. It would have a limited impact because most Syrian government strikes involve ground forces;
  • Establishing buffer zones near the Syrian borders with Jordan and Turkey for use by rebels to organize and train. "Thousands" of ground troops would be needed along with a small no-fly zone. A key risk is that "the zones could become operational bases for extremists"—the administration’s term for Islamist terrorists;
  • Controlling chemical weapons in Syria. This option would involve imposing a no-fly zone and using air and missile strikes involving "thousands" of special operations troops and "hundreds" of aircraft, ships, submarines, and other forces. Commandos would assault and secure chemical sites. Costs would average "well over $1 billion per month" and the operations would seek to control some but not all of Syria’s chemical arms, and prevent their proliferation to terrorists. "Our ability to fully control Syria’s storage and delivery systems could allow extremists to gain better access," Dempsey stated. "Risks are similar to the no-fly zone with the added risk of U.S. boots on the ground."

The Obama administration recently agreed to supply Syrian rebels with military assistance following reports that the Damascus regime has used chemical weapons.

Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.) has been advocating for a U.S. military-imposed no-fly zone over Syria, arguing that there is a lack of U.S. leadership in the conflict that has claimed an estimated 93,000 lives.

McCain told the Daily Beast that providing small arms to the rebels is not enough.

"One of two things will inevitably happen," he said. "Either we get engaged and we turn this around, or Assad is able to reassert control to the point where [the administration will] make up the excuse that we can’t salvage this situation anyway. I don’t know which result it’s going to be, but I do know with the status quo that the initiative will continue to remain with Assad."

Brookings Institution security specialist Bruce Riedel said Dempsey presented a sober and coherent assessment of the military options for Syria.

"His cost estimates are almost certainly under what the real costs would be for these options," Riedel said in an email. "There is simply no easy or cheap option that would bring change to Syria at little risk. That is why our allies, like the UK, have backed away from supporting these options recently. Their military has told their policy makers the same hard facts Dempsey has told McCain."