Has Pentagon chief reversed his position on striking Syria?

Gen. Martin Dempsey, the top Pentagon officer, repeatedly warned against the costs and potential entanglements of military involvement in Syria. Now he's testifying on behalf of the White House.

Jason Reed/Reuters
General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, holds up a card with handwritten notes for a closed meeting with the Senate Armed Services Committee earlier in the day, as he appears to testify at a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on Syria on Capitol Hill in Washington, September 4.

The nation’s top military officer warned repeatedly in recent months that getting US military involved with Syria is a dangerous proposition that runs the risk of quick escalation.

In congressional testimony this week, however, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, has been put in the tricky position of defending the White House desire to launch a strike there.

Did he change his mind, or is he just doing the White House’s bidding?

In the past, he has made it clear that US military intervention could tip the balance of power in favor of Islamist rebels who don’t necessarily have the interests of the United States at heart.

What’s more, he has warned, any Pentagon foray directed by the president could have the unintended consequences of miring US troops more deeply in the Syrian conflict.

As lawmakers weigh options, “We must also understand risk,” Gen. Dempsey warned in a July letter in response to Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, which he was required to provide in order to be reconfirmed for his current position. “Once we take action, we should be prepared for what comes next. Deeper involvement is hard to avoid.”

This came after a testy exchange in which Dempsey speculated that perhaps Senator McCain blamed him for the decision not to act earlier in Syria.

“Senator, somehow you’ve got me portrayed as the – you know, the one who’s holding back from our use of military force inside Syria,” he said. That decision, he noted, belongs to President Obama.

McCain had been advocating for the establishment of a no-fly zone, while Dempsey cautioned that the cost of such a move would be considerable – averaging as much as $1 billion per month – and likely have only a limited impact on violence in the country, since most of the civilian casualties are being caused by mortars, artillery, and missiles.

But with the recent increased confidence in the White House that Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons against his people, the calculus has changed for many in Washington.

According to an intelligence report, the Syrians have more than 1,000 tons of chemical agents and precursor chemicals, and several hundred tons of sarin, which represents the bulk of Mr. Assad’s arsenal.

The regime also reportedly has the missile capability of delivering these chemical weapons to neighbors in Israel, Turkey, Jordan, and Iraq, Sen. Richard Durbin (D) of Illinois noted in a Senate Foreign Relations Hearing Tuesday.

Dempsey confirmed this information, saying it “very closely matches” the Pentagon’s assessment.

The guidance that Mr. Obama has now given to his military planners is to design an intervention plan with “a collateral damage estimate of low,” meaning to kill as few civilians as possible, Dempsey said.

These assessments will be “based on how much we know about a target through intelligence, its proximity to civilian structures, and weapons effects as we decide what weapon” to use, he added.

This doesn’t mean that there will not be civilian deaths. “A collateral damage estimate of low means just that – that we will keep collateral damage lower than a certain number,” Dempsey said. “That doesn’t mean, by the way, that we would have the same constraint, if you will, in what damage could be done to regime personnel.”

Dempsey told lawmakers that the military intervention under discussion will be “very focused on the response to chemical weapons” and will be “limited and focused in scope and duration.” At a minimum, that focus and limitation appear to make it more palatable for the Pentagon’s top officer to give public support for the proposed operation.

As the Senate Foreign Relations Committee passed a resolution Wednesday to authorize air and naval strikes against Syria, McCain praised the vote, saying that the goal of the of the operation should be altering the balance of power on the battlefield in favor of the rebels.

This is a move that senior Pentagon officials have repeatedly warned against, however. Military officials continue to seek “clarity of who we’re dealing with and also clarity of outcome.”

They have also warned that air strikes will come with dangers, including “loss of US aircraft, which would require us to insert personnel recovery forces,” Dempsey wrote in his July letter.

Any Syria strike will not, however, include eliminating chemical weapons. “That’s not possible given the number and the distribution of them,” Dempsey told lawmakers Wednesday.

Syria has a “massive stockpile,” according to senior US military officials. Even in the highly unlikely event of the insertion of “thousands” of US Special Operations Forces – Secretary of State John Kerry has promised that there would be no “boots on the ground” – the impact would be “the control of some, but not all, chemical weapons,” Dempsey noted in July.

The Syrian strike that the Pentagon is planning is “about convincing the Assad regime that it’s unacceptable for them to use them,” Dempsey said Wednesday of chemical weapons. “And that’s the limit of this military operation.”

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