His comments are the first publicly released Pentagon outline of possible options for military intervention in the Syrian civil war.
In a letter to Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.), released by the senator on Monday, Dempsey laid out five possible options, in each case giving rough cost estimates and assessing potential impacts and risks. He characterized the evaluation as an unclassified version of options under consideration by President Obama and his national security team.
Noting that any decision to intervene would be a political one made by civilian leaders, Dempsey himself did not come down in favor of any particular option, but he did argue that they should be “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.”
“To this end, I have supported a regional approach that would isolate the conflict to prevent regional destabilization and weapons proliferation,” he continued. “At the same time, we should help develop a moderate opposition including their military capabilities – while maintaining pressure on the Assad regime.”
Dempsey included warnings about unintended consequences, including the dangers entailed in the collapse of state institutions, the difficulty of avoiding “deeper involvement,” and the risks that intervening in Syria could pose to America’s “other global responsibilities” – especially at a time of fiscal restraint.
More than 27 months into the conflict, the Obama administration announced in early June that it would start to arm vetted elements of the mostly Sunni opposition fighting to topple President Bashar Assad, at a time when the regime and its Shi’ite allies have been advancing in rebel-held areas.
On Capitol Hill, concerns persist that U.S. weapons could end up in the hands of jihadists among the rebels, including militants linked to al-Qaeda.
Some lawmakers feel the administration is not doing enough to support the opposition. They include Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who clashed with Dempsey over the matter during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Thursday and threatened afterwards to hold up Dempsey’s reappointment.
In response to questions raised by his Republican colleague, Levin pressed Dempsey for an unclassified assessment of Syria options, prompting the general’s letter.
The five options outlined in the letter are: to train and advise the Syrian opposition; to conduct limited air and missile strikes against key military targets; to establish and enforce a no-fly zone over Syria; to set up buffer zones, probably adjacent to the borders with Turkey and Jordan; and to take action to destroy or seize control of the regime’s chemical weapons stockpiles.
Cost estimates for these measures ranged from an initial $500 million a year for training and advising rebels, to $1 billion or more a month for the other options.
On training and advising the opposition, Dempsey said the option could require between several hundred and several thousand troops, access to safe areas outside Syria, and support from regional partners.
Risks included enhancing extremists’ capabilities, and the danger of “insider attacks,” he warned. (In Afghanistan “insider” attacks have seen members of the Afghan forces – believed to be Taliban insurgents or sympathizers – turn their weapons on U.S. or coalition troops. More than 60 coalition personnel were killed in such incidents last year.)
Dempsey said the options of stand-off strikes against regime targets or enforcing a no-fly zone would require hundreds of aircraft, ships and support assets. Risks of the former would include possible retaliatory attacks and probable “collateral damage” to Syrian civilians, while the latter would entail risks including “the loss of U.S. aircraft, which would require us to insert personnel recovery forces.”
Establishing buffer zones would require lethal forces to defend the zones against air, missile or ground attack, as well as thousands of U.S. ground forces, “even if positioned outside Syria, to support those physically defending the zones.”
Dempsey counted among potential hazards of that option the danger of a regime attack against a concentrated refugee population, and the possibility that the buffer zones “become operational bases for extremists.”
Finally, the option of targeting chemical weapons carried risks, he said, including those posed by the no-fly zone option, “with the added risk of U.S. boots on the ground.”