Tuesday, July 30, 2013

military advice on Syria

General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, has sent a letter to senators setting forth possible options for using force in Syria and the costs and consequences of each. We already knew that Gen. Dempsey has been  highly skeptical on the use of force there; now we have more specifics.

Sure, we could establish a no fly zone for about a billion dollars a month, he says. But --
"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."
Or we could establish buffer zones outside of Syria along with a limited no fly zone. But --
"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. "
Or we could try to control Syrian chemical weapons. But --
"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. "
These are plausible options and fair assessments. I believe Gen. Dempsey has met his obligation to give Congress his personal and professional judgment on the issue. There have also been classified briefings, he says.

The most interesting part of the letter to me is at the end, when he puts the issue in a broader geopolitical context.

"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.
"I know that the decision to use force is not one that any of us takes lightly. It is no less
than an act of war. As we weigh our options, we should be able to conclude with some
confidence that the use of force will move us toward the intended outcome. We must also
understand risk-not just to our forces, but to our other global responsibilities. This is especially
critical as we lose readiness due to budget cuts and fiscal uncertainty. Some options may not be
feasible in time or cost without compromising our security elsewhere. Once we take action, we
should be prepared for what comes next. Deeper involvement is hard to avoid. We should also
act in accordance with the law, and to the extent possible, in concert with our allies and partners to share the burden and solidify the outcome."

Think about what he means by those words.  Military power isn't enough to achieve our political goals. There will likely be unintended consequences, perhaps empowering extremists and unleashing chemical weapons. Using lethal force is "an act of war," and "we should act in accordance with the law," suggesting that Congress should have the guts to authorize it. Finally, he says that we have to be ready for likely "deeper involvement." 

Those are the issues on which action in Syria should be considered, not just whether some move might have temporary benefits.

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