US OPTIONS IN SYRIA: THE DEMPSEY LETTER
By Anthony H. Cordesman, Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy, CSIS
26 Jul 13. On July 19, 2013, General Martin Dempsey – the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs – sent a letter to Senator Carl Levin – the Chairman of the Senate Armed Service Committee – that set forth his “unclassified assessment of options for the potential use of U.S. military force in the Syrian conflict.”
General Dempsey made it clear that he was advancing “my independent judgment with as much openness as this classification allows,” and stated that, “you deserve my best military advice on how military force could be used in order to decide whether it should be used.” The judgments he expressed did, however, track with background briefings by other senior military officers and it was clear that they reflected the official stance of many within the Joint Staff. The question is how well these judgments track with U.S. strategic interest and how well they provide an objective assessment of the benefits and risks of U.S. action.
Focusing Exclusively on the Costs and Risks of Acting and Ignoring the Costs and Risks of Not Acting
General Dempsey noted that, “At this time, the military’s role is limited to helping deliver humanitarian assistance, providing security assistance to Syria’s neighbors, and providing nonlethal assistance to the opposition. Patriot batteries are deployed to Turkey and Jordan for their defense against missile attack. An operational headquarters and additional capabilities, including F-16s, are positioned to defend Jordan.” He went on to discuss five options for increasing U.S. support.
His letter then focused on the costs and risks of intervention. He did not attempt to discuss the strategic situation in Syria, its likely course without U.S. intervention, its impact on the nations around Syria and entire MENA region, or any of the costs and risks in not intervening. He stated that, “The decision over whether to introduce military force is a political one that our nation entrusts to its civilian leaders.” He went on to warn that,
“Too often …options are considered in isolation. It would be better if they were 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. At the same time, we should help develop a moderate opposition –Including their military capabilities – while maintaining pressure on the Assad regime.
All of these options would likely further the narrow military objective of helping the opposition and placing more pressure on the regime. We have learned from the past 10 years; however, that it is not enough to simply alter the balance of military power without careful consideration of what is necessary in order to preserve a functioning state. We must anticipate and be prepared for the unintended consequences of our action. Should the regime’s institutions collapse in the absence of a viable opposition, we could inadvertently empower extremists or unleash the very chemical weapons we seek to control.”
These are important and valid caveats, but it is important to remember that there are real dangers in focusing on the costs and risks of acting without examining the U.S. strategic interests involved, and the costs and risks of not acting. General Dempsey’s caveats are certainly important, but they scarcely provide a balanced view of the real nature of U.S. options.
U.S. Strategic Interests
No action the U.S. takes in regard to Syria is without risk. There is no way to control how events will play out over time or to predict when and how Syria or other MENA states will achieve some new, more lasting level of political stability. Any “success” at the military level means a new Syrian government whose structure is unpredicta