U.S. Options in Syria: Obama’s Delays and the Dempsey Warnings

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 worse for Lebanon rather than the best for Jordan or Turkey,

U.S. Policy Must Be Based on Learning to Live with Uncertainty and Instability

At the same time, the Obama Administration has not – to paraphrase John Milton -- shown that, “they also serve who dither and wait.” The failure to act decisively when the more moderate rebel forces in Syria seriously threatened Assad, and at the crest of rebel success, has not made anything better or brought Syria one step closer to a negotiable outcome. The pendulum in U.S. politics seems to have swung from the ideologically-driven overreaction and strategic absurdist optimism of the Bush
Administration to its exact opposite. We have gone from President Stork to President Log.

If anything, the Administration’s failure to act has steadily polarized each side with every passing week. It has systematically empowered both Iran and the Hezbollah while simultaneously empowering Al Qa’ida and Sunni Islamist extremist – not only in Syria, but Lebanon and Iraq.  It has dragged Syria’s neighbors steadily more deeply into the conflict and its spillover in terms of refugees.

It is also important to note that in his August letter to Congressman Engels, General Dempsey at least indirectly highlighted the President’s lack of action:

“We are helping Syria’s neighbors contain the spillover effects that would render our allies and partners less secure. We continue to deliver humanitarian and security assistance to Syria’s neighbors, as well as non-lethal assistance to the opposition. We could, if asked to do so, significantly increase our effort to develop a moderate opposition. Do so, in combination with expanded capacity to-building efforts with regional partners and a significant investment in the development of a moderate Syrian opposition, represents the best framework for an effective U.S. strategy in going forward.”

This was a much more positive closing than General Dempsey’s July letter to Senator Levin – even though it was written before the new urgency created by Assad’s possible use of chemical weapons on august 21st. It raised a key question: why hasn‘t the President asked and why hasn’t he acted?

Yes, it is not clear we can assemble a working coalition of U.S., European, Arab states and Turkey. It is not clear we still have enough moderate Syrian rebels factions to justify such an effort. It is clear there are no guarantees and no end states. But, the U.S. already should have tried and done in ways that provided active leadership and put pressure on its allies to act. Moreover, the US should not have done so because of chemical weapons or red lines – real or imagined – but because of the cumulative human cost, and the growing threat to our strategic interests and those of our allies.

The U.S. can influence the situation in Syria, just as it can influence the process of change in all of the states affected by the Arab “spring.” Moreover, Syria is only one example of the fact that failing to exert that influence does not make the situation better. The U.S. should not be reckless or act alone, but it is a fact that no one follows where no one leads. For all our internal divisions, and war fatigue, playing King Log is not enough and profiles in inertia are not the substitute for the previous President’s profiles in recklessness.

Taking a Full and Objective Look at the Options and Military Costs and Risks

And here, it is time to challenge some of General Dempsey’s more negative assumptions and statements – particularly those in his letter to Senator Levin. Once again, he did not provide an assessment of the options for some form of collective action and partnership – although that is supposed to be the essence of the new strategy we adopted in early 2014. He warns about valid worst cases, but does not assess their probability and ties them to unilateral U.S. action:

“We can destroy the Syrian air force…The loss of Assad’s air force would negate his ability to attack opposition forces from the air, but it would also escalate and potentially further commit the United States to the conflict. Stated another way, it would not be militarily decisive, but it would commit us decisively to the conflict”

He talks about the risks without discussing the benefits and the probability involved:

“The use of U.S. military force can change the military balance…But it cannot resolve the underlying and historic ethnic, religious and tribal issues that are fueling this conflict.”

And here, Congressman Engel’s response focuses on the key issues involved, “Until we are prepared to severely diminish the regime’s ability to inflict harm upon its own citizens and even the playing field — such a moderate opposition stands little chance against the regime’s scuds, tanks and planes.” Our current posture consists of waiting while things get steadily worse.

Focusing Exclusively on the Costs and Risks of Acting and Ignoring the Costs and Risks of Not Acting

At a minimum Congress should immediately seek full clarification of the addition options mentioned in passing in General Dempsey’s August 19th letter, and push 
General Dempsey to clarify his earlier assessment of the risks in his July letter to Senator Carl Levin – the Chairman of the Senate Armed Service Committee – in what he called an “unclassified assessment of options for the potential use of U.S. military force in the Syrian conflict.”

General Dempsey then 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 briefing by other senior military officers and it was clear that they reflected the official stance of many within the Joint Staff. The question is, however, 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.

General Dempsey did note 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.” And went on to discuss five options for increasing U.S. support.

His July letter, however, then focused almost exclusively 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 weaponsproliferation. At the same time, we should help develop a moderate opposition –Including theirmilitary 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.”

All of General Dempsey caveats are important, but they scarcely provide a balanced view of the real nature of U.S. options, but it is important to remember that there are real danger in focusing only on the costs and risks of acting without examining the U.S. strategic interests involved, only on the costs and risks of notacting, and never really defining “the context of an overall whole-of-government strategy for achieving our policy objectives in coordination with our allies and partners” – which is all the U.S. has publically done to date. In fact, that the U.S. has very publically failed to try to lead is seriously undermining our position in the region and our credibility with our allies.

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 unpredictable, a legacy of enduring political problems, and tensions throughout the region.

In balance, however, there are good humanitarian and selfish reasons for the United States to intervene, and key issues in terms of timing. The U.S. has now effectively dithered for a year and a half. The momentum of rebel success has been reversed, and a lack of outside support has weakened Syrian moderate and strengthen Sunni 
Islamist extremists.

Assad's forces continue to gain ground. Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Jordan, and now Qatar are willing to back moderate elements among the rebel forces, but the rebels remain bitterly divided and lack unity at least in part because the outside world is not giving them real incentives to agree on a moderate leadership. It is getting harder and harder to move arms, supplies, and civil aid across any border other than Syria’s border with Jordan, and the more the U.S. delays the more divided the rebels are likely to become and harder intervention will get.

The Humanitarian Case for Action

The humanitarian case is a clear reason for U.S. action, and so is that fact that many in the region hold the U.S. accountable for not acting and question its strength and willingness to support them in an emergency because of U.S. willingness to stand aside in this crisis. Given UN and other outside estimates, there now have to be over 110,000, dead and possibly twice that number because suspect deaths are not being counted. There are at least two to three times that total in seriously wounded. This means a total of at least 260,000 casualties.

These costs are small, however, relative to the total cost to Syrian civilians, and to the stability and economies states around Syria. An estimate by the State Department’s Humanitarian Information Unit (HIU), dated May 1, suggests that 6.8 million Syrian are in need of serious assistance and that 4.25 million are internally displaced, with a total of 1.4 million outside Syria.

The size of this tragedy is growing steadily, as well as destabilizing Syria’s neighbors. Experts estimate that at least 8.2 million Syrians are now affected out of a total population of 22.5 million—36 percent of the total population and counting -- even if one ignores casualties. The immediate human impact is obvious, and the economic and social costs to both Syrian civilians and Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan will rise indefinitely unless the Syrian people get a government they and the world can accept.

The Selfish Case for Action

Humanitarian reasons and the stability of Syria’s neighbors may well not be enough to shape U.S. congressional and public opinion at a time of growing war fatigue, a federal budget crisis, and competing strategic demands. General Dempsey is certainly correct in warning that the U.S. faces major resource problems in maintaining its military capabilities and meeting its global strategic priorities. But, there are selfish reasons for the United States to act as well.

What started as a Syrian civil conflict now threatens to fuel a major conflict between Sunnis and Shi’ites throughout Islam. As Russia’s withdrawal from Syria shows, the Syrian conflict does not involve major risks with outside powers, but it is steadily strengthening Iran and Hezbollah’s role in the region. It is dividing Lebanon and giving the Hezbollah and extremists a larger foothold there, creating new problems in Jordan and Turkey, pushing Iraq toward civil war and pushing Iraq’s Shi’ite leadership toward added dependence on Iran.

If Bashar al-Assad wins or survives in ways that give him control over most of Syria, Iran will have a massive new degree of influence over Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon in a polarized Middle East divided between Sunni and Shi’ite and steadily driving minorities into exile. This will present serious new risks for an Israel that will never again be able to count on a passive Assad. It will weaken Jordan and Turkey and, most importantly, give Iran far more influence in the Gulf. BP estimates that Iraq and Iraq together have nearly 20 percent of the world’s proven oil reserves, and the Middle East has over 48 percent.

This is why the new U.S. strategy announced in early 2012 gave the same priority to the Middle East as it did to Asia. The control of these reserves and the secure flow of oil exports impacts directly on our strategic position, on every aspect of our economy, and on every job in America. For all the talk about a level of U.S. energy independence that may or may not come at some point in the future, the U.S. Energy Information Agency makes very different predictions.

“Energy Independence” Does Not Affect U.S. Strategic Priorities

Whatever may happen in a future a decade way or more, the stability of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region still remains critical to the U.S. and global economies. While the United States is cutting its direct energy imports, such trends must be kept in careful perspective. There are credible scenarios where the United States might largely reduce its energy imports, but these are not the scenarios the U.S. government uses for planning purposes or that come out of the studies by the U.S. Department of the Energy.

The latest estimates of the Energy Information Agency (EIA), which were updated in May 2013, show that the United States still imported some 45 percent of its petroleum liquids in 2011 and still gets some 28 percent of its imports from the Gulf: “The United States consumed 18.6 million barrels per day (MMbd) of petroleum products during 2012, making us the world’s largest petroleum consumer…The United States imported 11.0 MMbd of crude oil and refined petroleum products in 2012….our net imports (imports minus exports) equaled 7.4 MMbd.”

EIA also notes why the security of the Strait of Hormuz and the Gulf are critical to the stability of the U.S. and global economy and to U.S. energy prices: “The Strait of Hormuz is the world’s most important oil chokepoint due to its daily oil flow of about 17 million bbl/d in 2011, up from between 15.7-15.9 million bbl/d in 2009-2010. Flows through the Strait in 2011 were roughly 35 percent of all seaborne traded oil, or almost 20 percent of oil traded worldwide.”

More than 85 percent of these crude oil exports went to Asian markets, with Japan, India, South Korea, and China representing the largest destinations. In addition, Qatar exports about 2 trillion cubic feet per year of liquefied natural gas (LNG) through the Strait of Hormuz, accounting for almost 20 percent of global LNG trade. Furthermore, Kuwait imports LNG volumes that travel northward through the Strait of Hormuz. These flows totaled about 100 billion cubic feet per year in 2010, again according to EIA.

The Real State of U.S. Dependence on Middle Eastern Exports

Even these aspects of the current level of U.S. strategic dependence on Middle Eastern oil grossly understate the case. The United States is steadily more dependent on Asian, European, and other imports of manufactured goods that are critically dependent on the flow of petroleum exports from the MENA area and particularly from the Gulf. This indirect import dependence on Middle Eastern and Gulf oil is critical to the U.S. economy.

More broadly, the U.S. economy is becoming steadily more dependent on a global economy that is projected to become steadily more dependent on MENA petroleum exports. Finally, the United States will continue to compete for petroleum resources on a global basis. If oil prices rise because of regional instability or an oil interruption in the MENA area, the United States will pay the same prices as all other countries in the world, and the U.S. domestic economy will suffer accordingly.

As for true energy independence—in the narrowest sense of direct dependence on oil imports—no one can predict the future. But, EIA projects that the decline in direct U.S. petroleum import dependence will be limited and scarcely offset U.S. dependence on a stable flow of other imports and the health of the global economy: “The net import share of U.S. petroleum and other liquids consumption, which fell from 60 percent in 2005 to 45 percent in 2011, continues to decline in the Reference case, with the net import share falling to 34 percent in 2019 before increasing to 37 percent in 2040… In the High Oil Price case, the net import share falls to an even lower 27 percent in 2040.

It is a long time to 2040, and even the best case leaves the U.S. economy and U.S. jobs critically dependent on world oil prices and the flow of world energy exports.

Re-Examining the Cost-Benefits of U.S. Intervention

These U.S. strategic interests do not mean that the risks General Dempsey’ raises in his letters to Congress can be ignored. At the same time, General Dempsey’s letters seem designed to emphasize the costs and risks rather than objectively assess the situation and options further action he touches on in passing, and this was particularly true of his letter in July:

“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.”

Even when General Dempsey wrote it, his line about chemical weapons seemed to be part of a consistent effort to exaggerate costs and risks even at the military level than is justified by a real threat. The U.S. had already said that the Assad government has used chemical weapons, and the new reports of attacks on August 21st – while still unconfirmed and filled with contradictory data – follow on a series of four serious suspected uses listed in the August 23rd edition of the Washington Post,

·         March 19, 2013, Khan al-Assal Allegations were made of a chemical weapons attack in Khan al-Assal, a town outside Aleppo, which killed at least 30 people. Reuters reported: “A Reuters photographer said victims he had visited in Aleppo hospitals were suffering breathing problems and that people had said they could smell chlorine after the attack.”

·         March 24, 2013, Adra Activists alleged that Syrian forces used chemical weapons against rebels in the town of Adra, near Damascus. Reuters reported that the attack killed two and wounded many more.

·         April 13, 2013, Sheik Maksoud, Aleppo ABC News reported on the allegations of a chemical attack. The story quoted a doctor in a nearby hospital where victims were treated as saying, “The symptoms and treatment clearly indicate that chemical agents caused the deaths of a woman and two children, and injured more than a dozen people.”

·         April 29, 2013, Soraqeb Activists alleged chemical attacks that led to one fatality and seven injuries. According to a BBC story, there were unverified eyewitness reports of canisters being dropped by a helicopter on the town.

But then, General Dempsey’s letters ignore most of the costs and risks of not intervening.  At this point, both sides seem increasingly likely to use extreme violence – including chemical weapons – if no one on the outside puts real pressure on them and at least creates a credible threat of military action. It seems likely that Syria’s only real chance of getting a moderate regime – rather than a divided Syria, a pro-Iranian Assad repression, or Assad’s replacement by an extremist government – will come from a combination of active U.S. support of moderate factions and matching support by friendly Arab states, Turkey, and allies like Britain and France.

Further, General Dempsey’s July letter largely ignores the potential benefits of all the other aspects of a strategic partnership with our allies throughout his discussion of military options. This may partly be the result of the fact his discussion of each option focuses so exclusively on U.S.-only U.S. military options. As he say in another part of his letter,

“Too often, these 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.”

The U.S. may well be able to get a substantial offset of its costs in intervening plus military forces, basing rights, and other support from support from its Arab and other allies – just as it did in the Gulf War in 1990-1991. It may well be able to persuade its Arab allies to pay for the economic support Syria will need on a humanitarian level, and for economic recovery, if it gets a government they can accept

Looking at U.S. Options

Accordingly, each of the military options General Dempsey discussed needed to be examined in terms of the options for the kind of strategic partnership called for in the new strategy the U.S. announced in January 2012. Even more important, they needed to be discussed in terms of their potential benefits as well as the costs and risks.

Train, Advise, and Assist the Opposition

General Dempsey described his first option as follows:

“This option uses nonlethal forces to train and advise the opposition on tasks ranging from weapons employment to tactical planning. We could also offer assistance in the form of intelligence and logistics. The scale could range from several hundred to several thousand troops with the costs varying accordingly, but estimated at $500 million per year initially. The option requires safe areas outside Syria as well as support from our regional partners. Over time, the impact would be the improvement in opposition capabilities. Risks include extremists gaining access to additional capabilities, retaliatory crossborder attacks, and insider attacks or inadvertent association with war crimes due to vetting difficulties.”

There is no meaningful discussion of what levels of support would be provided, what arms would be transferred, and what improvement would be made in rebel military capabilities, and how well and how soon such aid could later the balance, There is no assessment of the benefits of arming and training versus the costs, of how much support the U.S. will get from its “regional partners”

There is no assessment of what arms the rebels already have, the fact they now have at least some SHORADS and anti-tank guided weapons (ATGMs) as well as tanks. There is no assessment of the risks of not providing U.S. help affects moderate political and military elements, or the level of access extremists already have to sensitive arms.

There are no proposals for managing the flow of U.S. arms – or those provide by other countries -- although the U.S. has now had years in which to modify key weapons like manportable surface to-air-missiles (MANPADS) and ATGMs to limit their active life, the areas in which they can operate, and their vulnerability to U.S. countermeasures.  There is no discussion of options for partnership, although the U.S. has had ample time to consult its regional and key European allies.

The U.S. faces a region in which such weapons have already gone to groups like the Hezbollah, and some MANPADs are already in Syrian rebel hands. The U.S. is scarcely the only supplier extremists can turn to. We are rather then the key supplier and potential trainer more moderate rebel factions need.

 The costs and the troop levels that General Dempsey cites seem to be worst case figures based on the U.S. taking sole responsibility. Arab aid money and Jordanian and or Arab Gulf troops can be effective partners – perhaps more effective partners since religion, language, and the ability to quietly blend in is so much greater.  Training rebel forces to do it our way – the model we have largely followed in Iran and Afghanistan – seems far most costly and time consuming than the benefits of helping the rebels “do it their way.” Advice as relevant today as when it came from Lawrence.

The costs of inaction are also now even more clear. U.S. failures to act have had two major impacts. They have allowed Assad to reverse rebel momentum, allowed the Hezbollah to become a major faction in the fighting, and given Iran the opportunity to become a major source of arms, money, and trainers. The lack of proactive U.S. action has effectively made Lebanon Assad’s ally, helped create major problems for Turkey in supporting the rebels, and caught Iraq between an Alawite-ruled Syria and Iran.

U.S. delays and inaction have made it far harder for our Arab allies to achieve any unity of effort and effectiveness in aiding the rebels, fueled anti-U.S. conspiracy theories among moderate Syrians, and made the more extreme Islamist factors and fighters the most effective part of rebel forces by default.  In effect, the U.S. has already created many of the problems General Dempsey warns of, and major additional problems as well.

Moreover, recent U.S. statements it would provide arms -- followed by U.S. inaction – have further undermined U.S. credibility throughout the MENA region. At the same time, Hezbollah, and Iran have gained a major political advantage.

Every day in which the U.S. does not provide and support a major flow of arms and proper training and partnering support increase the chances that Syria will not only remain under Assad, but also become part of an Iranian-Lebanese and possibly Iraqi zone hostiles to both us and our Arab allies. Moreover, every delay increases the cost and level of action the U.S. must take to have any change of success or the probability the war will end in a crippled and possibly divided Syria, and millions of Syrian refugees in miserable enclaves if the U.S. fails to act or only takes token steps.

One also does not have to be a prophet to see that the more extreme Sunni elements in Syria will become more violent in dealing with other Syrians, become more hostile to the U.S. and moderate Arab states, and find ways to lash out. This is already happening.


Conduct Limited Stand-off Strikes.

General Dempsey described his second option as follows:

“This option uses lethal force to strike targets that enable the regime to conduct military operations, proliferate advanced weapons, and defend itself. Potential targets include high-value regime air defense, air, ground, missile, and naval forces as well as the supporting military facilities and command nodes. Standoff air and missile systems could be used to strike hundreds of targets at a tempo of our choosing. Force requirements would include hundreds of aircraft, ships, submarines, and other enablers.

Depending on duration, the costs would be in the billions. Over time, the impact would be the significant degradation of regime capabilities and an increase in regime desertions. There is a risk that the regime could withstand limited strikes by dispersing its assets. Retaliatory attacks are also possible, and there is a probability for collateral damage impacting civilians and foreigners inside the country.”

This option seemed to be formulated largely to present a worst case. It is one thing to carry out limited U.S. strikes to protect or aid the rebels, it its quite another to suggest something approaching general war out of the context of rebel options, allied support, or a political option. General Dempsey’s assessment assumes that Syria’s military forces are unified and effective enough so that only a massive effort to defeat key elements in detail can cause them to collapse or cease supporting Assad.

Given Syria’s political and military history, this is – to put it mildly – a worst-case set of assumptions. Far less draconian U.S. military action might divide or suppress many – if not most – elements of Syrian forces – particularly if other Arab forces were involved. It is far from clear that the Syrian air force, armor, or land-based air defenses would take the risk of operating or resisting once it was clear the U.S. would act.

 It also makes little real sense for the U.S. to attack everything in sight without regard to rebel capability to advance, and perceptions inside the region and in the world. In short, this is not so much an option as a straw man that General Dempsey seems to want to burn.

Establish a No-Fly Zone.

General Dempsey provided the following description of his third option:

“This option uses lethal force to prevent the regime from using its military aircraft to bomb and resupply. It would extend air superiority over Syria by neutralizing the regime’s advanced, defense integrated air defense system. It would also shoot down adversary aircraft and strike airfields, aircraft on the ground, and supporting infrastructure.

We would require hundreds of ground and sea-based aircraft, intelligence and electronic warfare support, and enablers for refueling and communications. Estimated costs are $500 million initially, averaging as much as a billion dollars per month over the course of a year.

Impacts would likely include the near total elimination of the regime’s ability to bomb opposition strongholds and sustain its forces by air. Risks include the loss of U.S. aircraft, which would require us to insert personnel recovery forces. It may also fail to reduce the violence or shift the momentum because the regime relies overwhelmingly on surface fires—mortars, artillery, and missiles.”

General Dempsey’s warning about the size and cost of a U.S. only effort again assumed that the effort is U.S.-only and that the U.S. needs to attack Syria’s entire air defense system. The U.S. certainly should not underestimate Syria, or fail to be ready for a high level of escalation in a worst-case contingency, but it needs to be realistic about real-world Syrian capabilities and willingness to fight, and the prospect for allied support and aid. This in no way is meant to imply General Dempsey’s warnings are not valid, but they involve a possibility and may not involve a probability.


The risks stated in General Dempsey’s letter assumes Syria would resist at a level requiring a nation-wide suppression of enemy air defense (SEAD) effort. Given Syria’s experiences in trying to resist the Israeli air force in 1982, and the fact it has posed minimal resistance to the IAF ever since, the risk and costs again seem to be assessed in ways that exaggerate the real-world probabilities involved and clearly ignore the prospects for allied military and financial support.


This option should consider providing expanding “no fly” coverage of rebel held or heavily disputed areas, rather than the entire country, and declaring “no fly” areas rather than carrying out a massive initial SEAD attack.


The option should also involve a reference to the Libyan case where “no fly” acquired strong elements of “no move.” The key surface fires are artillery, mortars, and tanks. Destroying elements of such pro-Assad forces that advance on rebel forces would only require relatively limited military effort, and might well deter other Syrian forces from advancing or attacking. Syrian regular forces are, after all, largely conscript and largely Sunni. And, important as the Hezbollah and Alawite militias have become, they have only limited surface fires capability.

Establish Buffer Zones

General Dempsey described his fourth option as follows:

“This option uses lethal and nonlethal force to protect specific geographic areas, most likely across the borders with Turkey or Jordan. The opposition could use these zones to organize and train. They could also serve as safe areas for the distribution of humanitarian assistance. Lethal force would be required to defend the zones against air, missile, and ground attacks. This would necessitate the establishment of a limited no-fly zone, with its associated resource requirements.

Thousands of U.S. ground forces would be needed, even if positioned outside Syria, to support those physically defending the zones. A limited no-fly zone coupled with U.S. ground forces would push the costs over one billion dollars per month. Over time, the impact would be an improvement in opposition capabilities. Human suffering could also be reduced, and some pressure could be lifted off Jordan and Turkey. Risks are similar to the no-fly zone with the added problem of regime surface fires into the zones, killing more refugees due to their concentration. The zones could also become operational bases for extremists.”

Does every option really cost a billion dollars a month for an unknown number of months or at least cost billions? To paraphrase Senator Everett Dirksen, a billion here and billion there adds up to unreal money. A “no fly, no move” zone covering limited rebel areas from allied bases – backed by clear U.S. threats to respond if Syria escalate – could be far more affordable.

Moreover, do U.S. ground troops really need to defend Jordan or Turkey against Syrian attacks across the border? Are the rebels really unable to take over the ground part of their own self-defense? (In which case they will be defeated with or without U.S. air support and at most retain a few marginal rebel enclaves dependent on outside aid and/or refugees in neighboring countries.)

The way General Dempsey described Option Four repeats the same focus on risks, rather than benefits, as in of his previous options. At one level, the U.S. needs to discuss a range of costs if U.S. limits the size of its role, and makes a U.S. effort conditional on substantial support in terms of money, forces, and basing/ort basing support from friendly Arab states and Turkey.

At another level, the U.S. needs to avoid open-ended commitments to the rebels. It needs to be clear to the rebels they must establish a level of unity and moderation that can make success possible. The U.S. should make it clear than a takeover by extremist elements will end U.S. support. Moreover, the U.S. should make it explicitly clear that it will not protect the rebels from their own mistakes and failures.

If the U.S. is to both retain its influence in the MENA region, and limit its costs and risks, it needs to make it clear that it is firmly committed to its allies and friends in the region, but only if they make partnership workable two-way street.

Control Chemical Weapons

General Dempsey described his final option as follows:

“This option uses lethal force to prevent the use or proliferation of chemical weapons. We do this by destroying portions of Syria’s massive stockpile, interdicting its movement and delivery, or by seizing and securing program components. At a minimum, this option would call for a no-fly zone as well as air and missile strikes involving hundreds of aircraft, ships, submarines, and other enablers.

Thousands of special operations forces and other ground forces would be needed to assault and secure critical sites. Costs could also average well over one billion dollars per month. The impact would be the control of some, but not all chemical weapons. It would also help prevent their further proliferation into the hands of extremist groups. Our inability to fully control Syria’s storage and delivery systems could allow extremists to gain better access. Risks are similar to the no-fly zone with the added risk of U.S. boots on the ground.”

We still do not know what happened on August 21st, and rebel claims may prove to be grossly exaggerated. Chemical weapons are all too lethal if terrorists or extremist use them properly -- as the Aum Shinrikyo attack on the Tokyo subway showed in March 1995 – and if they are delivered in large volumes as a military weapons. At the same time, one needs to be careful about demonizing them and creating “red lines” that exaggerate their historical lethality and understate the other costs and risks of war. There is a need to keep their lethality and the real world chances and consequences of their use in a realistic perspective.

In the case of General Dempsey’s July 19th letter, the option he suggests assumes the U.S. has to take direct control or directly destroy the weapons rather than deter their use.  Most important, the option is self-contradictory.  As General Dempsey’s letter states, the risks chemical weapons will be used by the Assad regime, the rebels, or extremists are not eliminated or even clearly reduced by U.S. inaction.

If extremists win without U.S. aid, they will get the weapons unless the U.S. intervenes under emergency condition and may still get some or many. If they lose but have acquired chemical weapons, they may use them. If the Assad regime survives, a hostile chemical weapons power will be more dependent on them for deterrence and influence than before the civil war. In short, the letter fails to provide any clear argument as to whether the U.S. is more damned if it does than if it doesn’t.

There also are elements of “overkill” in the July letter. A billion dollars a month? For what and for how long? Is the proposed level of U.S. involvement and escalation really needed or credible? Would a more limited, focused and cheaper effort on to deal with stockpiles actually at risk -- and on forces actually being armed and preparing to use such weapons – coupled to clearly defined threats to help deter use be equally effective? The answer seems to be yes.

Rethinking U.S. Options in Syria

Once again, the U.S. needs to examine the full range of options and actually act on the best alternative, General Dempsey’s caution in discussing U.S. options is scarcely without justification or cause. The U.S. military has every reason to be cautious about being thrust into what can become an open-ended commitment. This is particularly true given the fact the rebels situation has now been deteriorating for months and a history of U.S. civilian policymakers who failed to develop and execute adequate plans for integrated civil-military efforts, where advocates focus on success and not the risks, and where policymakers fail to ask how military action can be ended in ways that produce successful and lasting results worth their cost. 

More than a decade of war, ongoing and unpredictable budget cuts, other strategic priorities – as well as the sheer fatigue of a force with a decade of repeated combat deployments – provide additional reasons for caution. So does the fact that the U.S. has now waited so long to do anything that it has lost the window opportunity when the rebels were on the rise and limited U.S. action had a far greater chance of success.

There is never an easy way to choose the least bad option, and live with serious uncertainty, particularly if one yearns to make a choice. No one can guarantee success from the options now available; no military effort can give Syria political and economic future and longer-term stability. No one can now assuredly put together a good negotiating option for reaching accommodation within a polarized Syria, and no one can control Syria’s political development and stability from the outside.

Inaction, however, is also a form of decision-making, and exaggerating costs and risks has consequences. The U.S. is already watching arms flood into the region, Iranian influence grow, and a major rise in Sunni and Shi’ite/Alawite extremism. Assad is and will remain hostile to the U.S. and be dependent on Iran.  Doing nothing does not solve problems. Watching the situation deteriorate does not save money if the U.S. must become committed later at more cost and under far worse circumstances

 The U.S. faces a world in which it has to learn how to keep its military interventions limited, work with partners, and rely on local forces. It has to look at its full range of strategic interests, at its opportunities, and focus on partnerships. It has set out clear conditions and limits to any intervention that does not involve critical national security interests, and make it clear to its allies that they must do their share.

It is time to publically debate and choose between the more realistic options for U.S. action in Syria touched up in General Dempsey’s August letter. There are potential partners. The costs can be much lower, and the costs of not acting can be as high or higher as the cost of action. U.S. policy needs to be based on a more objective assessment of both U.S. strategic interests and the best options for American action.

Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2013 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Anthony H. Cordesman

Anthony H. Cordesman

Former Emeritus Chair in Strategy