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Anthony H. Cordesman, Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy, CSIS

23 Aug 13. It is important to define one’s red lines. It is far more important to define the impact of crossing them and have clear options for doing so. At this point, no one can ignore the warning that the Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey gave in a letter to Congressman Eliot Engel on August 19th, — written just days before the August 21st reports that Assad might have used chemical weapons to produce serious casualties.

In his latest letter to Congress, General Dempsey stated that: “Syria today is not about choosing between two sides, but rather about choosing between one among many sides choosing. It is my belief that the side we choose must be ready to promote their interests and ours when the balance shifts in their favor. Today, they are not… It is a deeply rooted, long-term conflict among multiple factions, and violent struggles for power will continue after Assad’s rule ends…We should evaluate the effectiveness of limited military options in this context…”

Choosing the Least Bad Option? King Log versus King Stork

This new letter built on warnings that General Dempsey had given in an earlier letter to Senator Levin on July 19, 2013 –although Dempsey’s August letter did close with a new set of options that many media reports ignored.

Chairman Dempsey again highlighted the fact that there are no guarantees that the U.S. can find a side in Syria that will move the country towards moderation and unity, and give its people stability and security. There are certainly many Syrians and factions that might do so, but Assad’s forces seem too strong for the rebels to be sure of defeating them, the rebels are deeply divided and might see a faction of Sunni Islamists extremist gain power if Assad falls.

If the U.S. does not work with its allies, however, Syria may well be become a divided nation with Sunni Arab rebels in one area, Syrian Kurds in another and a mix of Alawites and Sunni supporters of Assad in another – leaving the nation without a functioning economy, millions of impoverished refugees inside and outside Syria, and in a constant state of low level civil war that could become another round of major fighting at any moment. It is also possible that Assad may win decisively enough to control most of the country and rule its Sunni majority and Kurdish minority through a far worse pattern of repression that Syria has known since it gained independence. One way or another, it is all too likely that a failure to act will mean the civil war keeps escalating, the human impact grows, and it does more and more to impact on the region, divide Lebanon and Iraq, empower Iran in both states, and leave Israel, Jordan, and Turkey with growing problems.

These risks are not a valid argument for action for action’s sake. Regardless of whether the U.S. finds Assad has used chemical weapons to commit a major atrocity, it should not act alone or without full support from key allies, it should not act without the President going to Congress and making a case to the American people. It should not act on the basis of optimism and hope and the illusion that the political future of Syrian can be shaped from the outside – anymore than the U.S. could shape Afghanistan and Iraq or the future of the revolution in Egypt. The best of bad options is still going to be a bad option. The last three years have left Syria a shattered mess. Quite aside from its dead and wounded, some 20% of its population is now displaced, its economy ruined, religious divisions will last for years of anger and violence, and the best mix of U.S., European, and Arab efforts cannot guarantee a stable outcome or some lasting form of moderate governance and negotiated compromise between Arab Sunni, Arab Alawite, Kurd, Druze and Christian minorities. The near term outcome is far more likely to be the

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