The gathering in Amman is co-chaired by U.S. Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who is accompanied by U.S. Central Command head Gen. Lloyd Austin. According to Jordanian state media others taking part are defense chiefs from Canada, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the host nation.
Over the past month Dempsey has taken flak from some congressional critics for offering assessments of possible military options for Syria which they viewed as overly negative, but the discussion has shifted dramatically following last Wednesday’s incident near Damascus.
The suspected use by the Assad regime of an outlawed chemical agent that killed hundreds of people has prompted a new level of rhetoric by Western leaders, who warn that a “firm” and “serious’ response is now required. (Syrian President Bashar Assad said in an interview published Monday that his troops did not use chemical weapons in an attack on a rebel-held suburb in a Damascus last week where hundreds of people died.)
Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar are key supporters of the anti-Assad opposition and have long been agitating for a stronger response from the West. Jordan is struggling under the burden of almost one million Syrian refugees, a seriously destabilizing element for the strategically-located country of less than seven million people.
Britain and France are the European countries most likely to contribute to any military response, while Germany and Italy are viewed as more leery.
In the event that a decision is taken to initiate military action against Syria, the U.S. has an array of Sixth Fleet naval assets in the Mediterranean as well as in the Fifth Fleet area of responsibility, which includes the Red Sea and Persian Gulf.
Ships in the Mediterranean include the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyers USS Gravely, USS Barry, USS Mahan and USS Ramage, all armed with Tomahawk missiles. One of the four, the USS Barry, was one of two ships in the class that were involved in Odyssey Dawn, the U.S. part of the NATO mission in Libya in 2011, firing dozens of missiles at Libyan targets in the opening salvo of that operation.
The Sixth Fleet’s flagship, the joint command vessel USS Mount Whitney, served as the tactical operations center during the Libya mission.
Just two weeks ago the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman was in the Mediterranean, but according to the U.S. Navy, as of Friday it was back in the Fifth Fleet area of responsibility.
Also in the Fifth Fleet area are the amphibious assault ships USS San Antonio and USS Kearsarge (another Odyssey Dawn participant), which carry Harrier attack aircraft and were recently in the Red Sea as a precautionary measure during the Egyptian crisis. The guided missile cruiser USS San Jacinto was in the Red Sea just last week.
With overflight permission from Jordan, the northern reaches of the Red Sea’s Gulf of Aqaba would bring missiles or aircraft within 280 miles of Damascus. Moreover, the U.S. left a detachment of F-16 fighters in Jordan after the end of annual joint military exercises last June (prompting Russia to say at the time that their use to impose a no-fly zone over Syria would violate international law).
Other options available to the U.S. in the event of a decision to launch strikes would be direct bombing runs from the NATO airbase in Aviano, north-eastern Italy, about 1,500 miles from Damascus, or from the base in Incirlik, Turkey, only about 300 miles from the Syrian capital.
Britain has warplanes in nearby Cyprus while France has fighters at an airbase in the United Arab Emirates, about 1,300 miles from Damascus.
‘On the sidelines for too long’
In Malaysia this weekend, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said President Obama had asked the Pentagon “to prepare options for all contingencies” and it had done so. “We are prepared to exercise whatever option, if he decides to employ one of those options,” Hagel said.
When Dempsey last month provided lawmakers with his assessment of possible military options in Syria, among them were limited air and missile strikes against military targets, the enforcement of a no-fly zone over Syria, and measures to destroy or seize control of chemical weapons stockpiles.
Dempsey said the stand-off strike option would require hundreds of aircraft, ships and support assets and would carry risks including possible retaliatory attacks and likely “collateral damage” to civilians. Depending on duration, he predicted the cost “would be in the billions.”
Risks of implementing a no-fly zone, he said at the time, would include “the loss of U.S. aircraft, which would require us to insert personnel recovery forces.”
And the option of targeting chemical weapons carried those same perils, Dempsey said, “with the added risk of U.S. boots on the ground.”
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a leading voice among those in the Senate critical of the administration for its approach to the Syrian crisis, called Dempsey’s assessments “disingenuous and exaggerated.”
On Sunday, McCain and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) in a joint statement called for “decisive action” now.
“Using stand-off weapons, without boots on the ground, and at minimal risk to our men and women in uniform, we can significantly degrade Assad’s air power and ballistic missile capabilities and help to establish and defend safe areas on the ground.”
The senators charged that the U.S. had “sat on the sidelines for too long.”
“The conflict is now becoming a regional one that directly threatens some of America’s closest friends and allies in the Middle East.”