US General: Going into Syria Would Create 'Unintended Consequences'

The top US military officer warned senators on Monday that taking military action to stop the bloodshed in Syria was likely to escalate quickly and result in "unintended consequences", representing the most explicit uniformed opposition to deeper involvement in another war in the Middle East.

Alluding to the costly, bloody occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, said that once the US got involved militarily in the Syrian civil war, which the UN estimates to have killed about 93,000 people, "deeper involvement is hard to avoid".

"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," Dempsey wrote to senators John McCain and Carl Levin on Monday. "We must anticipate and be prepared for the unintended consequences of our action."

Dempsey's letter came after McCain announced he would block the general's reappointment to chair the joint chiefs of staff, the most senior position in the US military, until Dempsey provided the Senate with his assessment of the merits of US military action in Syria.

McCain is the leading congressional advocate of using direct US military force to tip the balance of power against Assad, an Iranian ally.Dempsey's public comments about Syria over two years have been skeptical of the wisdom of greater US military involvement.

Last month, President Barack Obama announced he would provide light weaponry and ammunition to the beleaguered Syrian opposition for the first time, after concluding that Assad used chemical weapons against civilians, a violation of Obama's stated "red line".

In a move to end the legislative standoff over his renomination, Dempsey wrote that each option under consideration would be costly and uncertain.

Arming and training the rebels, the least-riskiest option, would cost "$500m per year initially", require "several hundred to several thousand troops" and risk arming al-Qaida-aligned extremist forces amongst the rebels or "inadvertent association with war crimes due to vetting difficulties".

Limited air strikes would require "hundreds of aircraft, ships, submarines, and other enablers", with costs running "in the billions", to achieve little more than a "significant degradation of regime capabilities and an increase in regime desertions". Dempsey warned that Assad's regime could withstand the strikes. 

A no-fly zone, McCain's preferred option, would require "require hundreds of ground and sea-based aircraft, intelligence and electronic warfare support, and enablers for refueling and communications", Dempsey wrote, costing up to $1bn per month. He added: "It may also fail to reduce the violence or shift the momentum because the regime relies overwhelmingly on surface fires – mortars, artillery, and missiles." 

Even a limited no-fly zone, to establish what former State Department official Anne-Marie Slaughter termed a "no-kill zone", would cost "over $1bn a month," Dempsey assessed, due to the requirement of "thousands of US ground forces" to maintain it, even outside Syria.

The control of Syria's chemical stocks would require "thousands of special operations forces and other ground forces would be needed to assault and secure critical sites", Dempsey wrote, as well as "a no-fly zone as well as air and missile strikes". But Dempsey did not echo earlier Pentagon estimates that taking control of the weapons meant inserting some 70,000 US troops, a figure some in Congress believe was inflated.

The Obama administration is internally divided about the wisdom of delving deeper into Syria's bloody civil war, balancing a desire to avoid another another war in the Middle East with ending one of the world's worst humanitarian disasters.

"The ghosts of Afghanistan and Iraq are vying with the ghosts of Rwanda and Kosovo," Michael Oren, the former Israeli ambassador to Washington, recently observed to the New York Times.

Dempsey, a veteran of multiple command tours in Iraq, further cautioned that all the options would only further the "narrow military objective" of pressuring Assad.

"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," Dempsey said.

• This article was updated on 22 July to correct a line that said Bashar al-Assad had "slaughtered" 90,000 people in the Syrian civil war. In fact the UN estimates the total death toll, regardless of responsibility, to be about 93,000 people.

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