Dempsey Wary Of U.S. Involvement In Syria

The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, has outlined the costs and benefits of the military options the U.S. is considering for Syria. The options include training rebels, military strikes and establishing a no-fly-zone. Dempsey offered his assessment in a letter to the top Senator on the Armed Services Committee. He noted there would be "unintended consequences" to any action, a reference to the past decade of military action in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, has laid out five military options for the U.S. in Syria. They range from training rebel forces to creating a no-fly zone to mounting air strikes against hundreds of military targets, including chemical weapons. But as NPR's Tom Bowman reports, the general also made clear he's wary of getting the U.S. involved in another war.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: The reason General Dempsey is writing about war in Syria now is because he got into a war of words about Syria last week on Capitol Hill. Here's what happened: Senator John McCain mocked General Dempsey for something the general said in an interview, that the U.S. must know what the peace will look like in Syria before it starts a war.

SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN: The war has been going on, General Dempsey, to over 100,000 people killed. We didn't start the war, and we wouldn't be starting a war. You think we ought to see how we could stop the war by intervening and stopping the massacre?

BOWMAN: General Dempsey didn't answer that question. Instead, he asked Senator McCain if he agreed with this premise.

GENERAL MARTIN DEMPSEY: That, actually, situations can be made worse by the introduction of military force.

BOWMAN: It was a clear reference to the American experience in Iraq, which descended into years of ethnic chaos once U.S. troops invaded. So after that exchange, Dempsey was asked to give his opinion about military options for Syria. He did in writing. We must be prepared for the unintended consequences of our action, Dempsey wrote. Should the Syrian regime crumble without a viable government to take its place, the U.S. could empower extremists or unleash chemical weapons.

BRIAN KATULIS: This letter throws a lot of cold water on some of the proposals about military options.

BOWMAN: Brian Katulis is a defense analyst with the Center for American Progress. Every option Dempsey discussed would require U.S. troops or aircraft and ships. Not one would guarantee the fall of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad.

KATULIS: So I think this is a dose of reality to the debate on Syria.

BOWMAN: Katulis says that General Dempsey's experience explains his caution. Dempsey commanded U.S troops in Baghdad when the war started to spiral out of control.

KATULIS: He remembers and most Americans remember how deadly that was for Iraqis and for Americans.

BOWMAN: General Dempsey's letter echoes what Secretary of State Colin Powell told President George W. Bush in 2003 about the risk of invading Iraq. Powell recalled what became known as the Pottery Barn rule at a conference several years later.

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SECRETARY COLIN POWELL: Once you break it, you're going to own it, and we're going to be responsible for 26 million people standing there looking at us.

BOWMAN: Or 21 million in the case of Syria, a country split by similar ethnic divisions.

SAM BRANNEN: I just don't think there is a good set of options out there beyond exactly what we're doing, which is pressing on the diplomatic front.

BOWMAN: Sam Brannen is an analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He says the White House is facing little public pressure to get involved in another war.

BRANNEN: There just is not an appetite or desire to intervene in Syria except among a handful of senators.

BOWMAN: Still, the White House has approved shipping some weaponry to the Syrian rebels, not by the Pentagon, but by the CIA. Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington.

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