The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the president’s top military adviser, told the Senate on Tuesday that U.S. plans for attacks on Syria were made more difficult by leaks to the press and the president’s delay in ordering the strikes.
Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman, said in testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that despite those setbacks he is confident military strikes will be effective in degrading the Syrian military’s chemical warfare capabilities.
Dempsey appeared before Congress with Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel in the first day of what is expected to be a two-week debate on whether to approve President Obama’s announced plans to take military action along
Unlike Kerry and Hagel, Dempsey had no prepared statement and provided short answers to most questions.
Asked by Sen. Ben Cardin (D., Md.) if public discussion of plans by the United States to use military force had made it more difficult to conduct the strikes, Dempsey said: "Yes, senator, it has."
Dempsey said within the past 10 days "there was a significant leak of military planning that caused the regime to react."
"So time works both ways," he said, adding that "we have some pretty significant intelligence capabilities, and we continue to refine our targets."
Reports from the Middle East said the Syrian government has begun moving forces and hiding potential targets of a missile strike in anticipation of U.S. military action.
Obama said Saturday that he was told by his military advisers that any attack could be delayed without undermining the mission and thus he decided to seek congressional approval before an attack.
Later in the hearing, Dempsey said "for interest of clarity here, what I actually said to the president is the following: The military resources we have in place can remain in place, and when you ask us to strike, we will make those strikes effective."
"In other sessions, in the principals committee, not with the president present, we talked about some targets becoming more accessible than they were before," he said, an apparent reference to intelligence indicating the Syrians had moved forces to locations where they can be more easily attacked.
However, he said "there is evidence, of course, that the regime is reacting not only to the delay, but also they were reacting before that to the very unfortunate leak of military planning."
"So this is a very dynamic situation."
Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.), also criticized the administration for announcing plans for attacks.
"When you tell the enemy you're going to attack them … they're obviously going to disperse and try to make it harder," McCain said, adding that Syria is hiding weapons and moving troops and may be moving forces into Syria’s Russian naval base.
McCain said it was a mistake "to warn the enemy that you're going to attack."
Dempsey said the military planners have prepared "several target sets" and that follow-on strikes could be conducted after initial strikes.
"What we do know is we can degrade and disrupt his capabilities," he said.
Both Democrats and Republicans posed difficult questions to the three officials, including whether an attack on Syria will be effective militarily and strategically, and whether an attack might facilitate al Qaeda-linked rebels’ efforts to take power.
Others questioned why the administration had not followed through on public statements promising to provide arms to Syrian rebels fighting the Bashar al Assad regime.
At least five U.S. warships are deployed near Syria in the Eastern Mediterranean and are equipped with cruise missiles.
Defense officials have said a limited, one-day series of cruise missile strikes would be aimed to attack Syrian artillery, rockets, and missiles near Damascus, where the chemical attack took place.
U.S. intelligence agencies determined that nerve agent was used, killing some 1,400 people, including more than 400 children.
Kerry and Hagel, for their part during the hearing, provided halting and sometimes conflicting testimony on what the goal of military action will be.
At one point, Kerry declined to rule out the dispatch of ground forces to Syria’s civil war, which has claimed an estimated 100,000 lives.
"I don’t want to take off the table an option that might or might not be available to the president that might secure our country," he said.
After news reports picked up on the comment, Kerry sought to tamp down any notion of ground troops being sent to Syria.
Kerry said the president was seeking "limited authority" to strike chemical weapons capabilities and deter the further use of the arms.
"He is not asking for permission from the Congress to go destroy the entire regime or to, you know, do a much more extensive kind of thing," Kerry said.
Dempsey also said the resolution sought by the administration is "not asking for permission for the president to be able to use the United States armed forces to overthrow the regime."
However, Hagel, under questioning from Sen. Ron Johnson (R., Wisc.) said "one option" would be the removal of Assad.
"I'm trying to reconcile why, if we're going to go in there militarily, if we're going to strike, why wouldn't we try and do some kind of knock-out punch?" Johnson asked.
Sen. Tom Udall (D., N.M.) said he has doubts about the planned strikes, which he said appeared to be on "shaky international legal foundations."
"I hope this hearing will do more than just rubber stamp a decision that has already been made by this administration," Udall said. "I have grave concerns about what the administration is asking of us, of our military and of the American people."
"We're being told we're bombing in order to send a message. But what message are we sending?" Udall asked.
Udall said he viewed the bombing campaign as a "potential next step toward full-fledged war."
Kerry said limited military attacks were needed to send "the unmistakable message" to Syria regarding the Aug. 21 nerve gas attack near Damascus that "we don’t mean sometimes, never means never."
"Forcing Assad to change his calculation about his ability to act with impunity can contribute to his realization that he cannot gas or shoot his way out of his predicament," Kerry said.
Hagel said the military options for Syria are designed to "hold the [Syrian leader Bashar al-]Assad regime accountable, degrade its ability to carry out these kinds of attacks, and deter the regime from further use of chemical weapons."
"The Department of Defense has developed military options to achieve these objectives, and we have positioned U.S. assets throughout the region to successfully execute this mission," Hagel said. "We believe we can achieve them with a military action that would be limited in duration and scope."
Among the risks of a military strike, Hagel said the regime could conduct "even more devastating chemical weapons attacks."
However, he said refusing to act would undermine the credibility of U.S. security commitments, including promises to block Iran from acquiring nuclear arms, Hagel said.
Dempsey told the panel that the goal of military action would be to degrade Syria’s chemical warfare capabilities.
The four-star general said any upcoming military strike would be focused on the threat of Syria’s chemical weapons. He said supporting the opposition with arms and assistance could come later.
The Wall Street Journal reported on Tuesday that promised U.S. military support for the Free Syrian Army has been delayed.
However, Saudi Arabia and Turkey currently are providing arms to Islamist groups, including two rebel groups linked to al Qaeda, in addition to the Free Syrian Army, a group dominated by former Syrian army officers and troops.
Assad told the French newspaper Le Figaro this week that western military strikes would lead to a regional conflict in the Middle East, an area he called a "powder keg."
France’s government released an intelligence report that confirmed that Syria’s government was behind the gas attack.
"The attack on Aug. 21 could only have been ordered and carried out by the regime," the report stated. "We believe the Syrian opposition does not have the capacity to carry out an operation of such magnitude with chemical agents," it said.
France’s military is prepared to join the United States in attacks on Syria in response to the gas attacks, although French government spokesmen have said the military would not act on its own and must join a coalition.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said on Monday that "statements from Washington threatening to use force against Syria are unacceptable." He warned that U.S. action would violate international law, undermine the prospects for a resolution to the Syrian conflict, and provoke further confrontation, Interfax reported.
Also on Monday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said China has "serious concerns" about plans for military strikes. Hong said international military action must conform to the United Nations charter and basic rules of international relations.