The top US military officer told a Senate panel on Thursday the Obama administration was deliberating whether to use military power in Syria, where a civil war entering its third year has killed almost 93,000 people.
Amid an increasing clamour among President Bashar al-Assad’s opposition for active US involvement, Army Gen. Martin Dempsey said during congressional testimony that he had provided President Barack Obama with options for the use of force. But he declined to detail those choices, saying, “It would be inappropriate for me to try to influence the decision with me rendering an opinion in public about what kind of force we should use.”
The remarks by the Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman came after Sen. John McCain, a leading Republican, asked him which approach in Syria would carry a greater risk: continued limited action on the part of Washington or more significant actions such as the establishment of a no-fly zone and arming the rebel forces with the weapons they need to stem the advance of Assad’s forces.
“Senator, I am in favour of building a moderate opposition and supporting it,” Dempsey said. “The question whether to support it with direct kinetic strikes... is a decision for our elected officials, not for the senior military leader of the nation.”
The use of kinetic strikes, a military term that typically refers to missiles and bombs, “is under deliberation inside of our agencies of government,” Dempsey said.
Asked about Dempsey's comments, White House spokesperson Jay Carney said Obama always asks his military commanders for options “and that is true in an arena like Syria”. He said the president was constantly reviewing US options in Syria.
“There are a whole range of options that are out there,” Navy Adm. James Winnefeld, vice-chairman of the Joint Chiefs, said of the planning for military action in Syria. “We are ready to act if we’re called on to act.”
McCain later told a group of reporters he plans to block Dempsey's confirmation, saying he was dissatisfied with the answers to the questions Dempsey was asked about Syria.
Seeking a compromise, Sen. Carl Levin, a Democrat and the committee chairman, asked Dempsey to provide the panel by early next week with an unclassified list of options and the general’s assessment of the pros and cons of each. Levin made clear he was not asking Dempsey to share his personal opinion on whether or not to use force in Syria. Dempsey agreed to provide the list.
Levin said he hoped the assessment from Dempsey would give McCain “greater reassurance”.
Dempsey acknowledged in response to a question from Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican, that Assad's forces had the upper hand in Syria. “Currently the tide seems to have shifted in his favour,” the general said.
During his exchange with McCain, Dempsey said “situations can be made worse by the introduction of military force” without first understanding how the country would continue to govern and ensuring that government institutions don’t fail.
Dempsey’s first term as chairman has been a turbulent one with the military drawing down from lengthy wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. At the same time, he has had to grapple with billions of dollars in budget cuts that have threatened military readiness, the epidemic of sexual assaults in the ranks, the crisis in Syria and most recently unrest in Egypt.
The Armed Services Committee is considering Dempsey's and Winnefeld's nominations for a second term. The Democratic-led committee is all but certain to approve the reappointments.
Leading senators including Levin and McCain, have been pressing Obama to take a more forceful approach to defeat Assad’s forces. While the administration has authorised lethal aid to rebel forces battling Assad’s troops, it isn’t trying to enforce a no-fly zone in which Syria’s combat aircraft would be barred from flying, or otherwise intervene militarily to halt the war.
To avoid getting drawn deeper into Syria’s civil war, administration officials have pointed to the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 as an example of what can go wrong when America’s military becomes involved in Middle East conflicts.
“We’ve rushed to war in this region in the past. We’re not going to do it here,” Obama’s chief of staff, Denis McDonough, said Sunday on CBS television’s Face the Nation.