Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin E. Dempsey at his confirmation hearing before Senate Armed Services Committee in Washington D.C., Thursday, 18, July 2013
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin E. Dempsey at his confirmation hearing before Senate Armed Services Committee in Washington D.C., Thursday, 18, July 2013 // Department of Defense Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Daniel Hinton

Want Syria? Convince General Dempsey

By now, it should be clear: the road to Damascus leads through Dempsey.

While bipartisan support has grown in Congress for the United States military to intervene on behalf of the Syrian rebels — now in their second year of conflict against President Bashir al-Assad’s regime — one thing has not changed: Gen. Martin Dempsey isn’t buying it.

The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has said time and time again that he does not see a good outcome from adding U.S. military might to the Syrian fight. Instead, since at least February 2012, Dempsey has said to anyone who would listen that he first wants to see a “whole of government” plan before he would advise the president that the U.S. military invade Syria’s sovereign territory, which lies smack between NATO and Iran, and Israel, requires destroying anti-aircraft defenses, could fuel the refugee flood, spur anti-American outrage and likely kill more Syrians all while leaving the country with a fragmented opposition few believe is ready or able to take over running a country.

In other words: Avoid another Iraq.

Never forget, Dempsey is a combat veteran of the Iraq War and Operation Desert Storm. When he moved into the chairman’s office, Dempsey placed only a few memorabilia items on his desk – well, it’s Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s desk from the Philippines. One item still there is a wooden box inscribed with the words “Make it Matter.” Inside the box are memorial cards with the pictures and family information of every service member killed in Iraq under his 1st Armored Division command in 2003 and 2004. “And he carries three or four cards in his wallet each day,” said Col. Edward Thomas, the chairman’s spokesman.

With those cards in his wallet last Thursday, Dempsey squared off against Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who just wouldn’t let the general pass before the Senate Armed Services Committee nomination hearing without a fight. McCain first got in another dig at Dempsey over the Iraq surge, claiming Dempsey was wrong to oppose it. Then McCain, the second-from-ranking Republican (still the GOP’s clear leading voice on national security policy), demanded to know why the Obama administration Dempsey serves won’t do more — won’t do anything, really — to help Syria’s rebels with overt and lethal U.S. military force.

McCain got his gone-viral sound bites and Dempsey did his best not to be drawn in from the witness table. McCain told reporters he would put a hold on Dempsey’s nomination unless he heard answers. The next day McCain got his formal answer in a letter from Dempsey to the committee that pointedly read:

“The decision over whether to introduce military force is a political one that our nation entrusts to its civilian leaders. I also understand that you deserve my best military advice on how military force could be used in order to decide whether it should be used.” Dempsey added his own underlines for emphasis.

Call it the Dempsey Doctrine: isolate the country, but don’t invade it. To help one side of a messy civil war so politically sensitive that Washington has to keep its distance, the U.S. can send in covert supplies, funnel arms and cash. But don’t take ownership of it, overtly. Heed the Pottery Barn Rule. The U.S. didn’t break it, so the U.S. doesn’t have to buy it. Instead, Dempsey’s position now is “a regional approach”: box in the conflict to prevent the war and weapons from spreading.

Pentagon Press Secretary George Little said Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is  “clear eyed about the potential unintended consequences of military intervention in Syria, given the dynamics on the ground.”

Keep Iraq in mind, again, as Dempsey in five paragraphs lays out the five options for military force and what risks each option carries:  Added training for rebels requires safe areas near Syria and exposes U.S. trainers and allies to extremist attacks. Stand-off strikes (missiles from afar) could take out military command centers, but cost “in the billions” and will include civilian deaths. A no-fly zone could run $1 billion per month, Dempsey said, and puts Americans directly at risk of combat deaths. “It may also fail to reduce the violence or shift the momentum” because Assad’s war is fought on the ground, anyway. “Buffer zones” on the ground for rebels and civilians would require the aforementioned no-fly zone to protect, also. Finally, Dempsey describes a U.S. mission to grab and secure Syria’s chemical weapons as a low-probability/high-risk nightmare, requiring hundreds of aircraft, ships, submarines and thousands of special operations and ground forces.

“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. “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.”

Syria could become post-invasion Iraq.

Washington’s national securiatti perked up at the McCain-Dempsey row. Atlantic Council Managing Editor James Joyner, who last week argued McCain was wrong to demand the chairman say whether he wanted to fight or not, said, “Dempsey has carefully balanced himself here, both ostentatiously avoiding involving himself in the ‘shoulds’ of Syria policy while making it clear that the costs of all options on the table are high and the likely benefits small.”

McCain on Tuesday relented and told Capitol Hill reporters that he would not hold Dempsey’s pro forma confirmation for a second term as chairman. But if anyone really wants to know what’s guiding Dempsey’s thinking, next time check his wallet.

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