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Top General: U.S. Options In Syria Have Big Downsides

By Renee Montagne | NPR
Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

The top U.S. general has offered his assessment of military options for Syria. Gen. Martin Dempsey outlined the costs, benefits and risks of five options being considered by the Obama administration. Overall, he says, each option has serious downsides.



Again, that ever more bitter divide between Iraq's Sunnis and Shiites is a spillover from the vicious war in neighboring Syria. Under pressure from Congress, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has prepared five military options for Syria, but it's not clear the nation's top general thinks highly of any of them.

Here, in shorthand, is how General Martin Dempsey summarized those options in a letter to Congress: They're costly, the price tags could run into the billions, they're risky with the prospect of unintended consequences, and they may not even work to end the violence in Syria. NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman is here to sort this all out. Good morning.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: First, what are some of the options specifically that General Dempsey said are on the table?

BOWMAN: Well, again, Renee, there are five options. The first is a more robust training effort for Syrian rebels, somewhere outside of Syria, maybe Jordan or Turkey. Another option is airstrikes against Syrian military targets. Then there's one we hear a lot about: a no-fly zone over Syria. And then still another option is a buffer zone. That would be basically a stretch of Syrian land along the borders of Turkey and Jordan to provide sort of a safe haven for the opposition.

And then finally, one of the big problems in the country, of course, is chemical weapons. So General Dempsey says the U.S. could bomb some of these sites and then send in U.S. Green Berets or other commandos to secure other sites. So that's the list.

MONTAGNE: And Tom, is it fair to say that the general came down on the side that military options are not promising?

BOWMAN: Yeah, that's right. And none of these options, Dempsey says, will you be certain the Syrian regime will fall and the violence will end. So let's look at the no-fly zone as an example. That's one of the options that Senator John McCain supports. Dempsey says it would cost as much as a billion dollars a month. It would take hundreds of aircraft, and some of those aircraft might be shot down. So then you'd have to send in teams to recover the pilots.

And then here's another problem. The Syrian regime uses mortars, artillery and missiles against the rebels, and that would not be affected by a no-fly zone. So this is how General Dempsey approaches all the options. There are risks involved and that Syria's leader, Bashar al-Assad, could still survive in power after all of this.

MONTAGNE: And there is a history of this sort of caution in the military.

BOWMAN: Absolutely. And look at recent history. General Dempsey served in Baghdad when that place was falling apart. And remember, there was no plan for what would happen after the fall of Saddam Hussein. And Dempsey referred to that in his letter about Syria, and here's what he said, and I'm quoting here: We have learned from the past 10 years we must anticipate and be prepared for the unintended consequences of our action.

MONTAGNE: And this goes back even before Iraq and Afghanistan. I mean he's sounding a little like General Colin Powell.

BOWMAN: And that's right. And of course General Powell was a young officer during the Vietnam War, and he and others never forgot how it was all bungled, that there were no clearly achievable objectives for the military. And the civilians privately saw it all as kind of a lost cause.

And once Powell became chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the end of the 1980s, he established what became known as the Powell Doctrine: clear objectives, enough force to do the job, and an exit strategy. And that's pretty much what General Dempsey is describing for Syria.

MONTAGNE: And just finally, this time on Syria it's Senator John McCain who is the chief advocate for more aggressive action.

BOWMAN: That's right. And John McCain has been - said he was very disappointed in what General Dempsey laid out and his reluctance to get involved in military action.

MONTAGNE: NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman, thanks very much.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, Renee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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