Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey during a briefing at the Pentagon
Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey during a briefing at the Pentagon // Office of the Secretary of Defense

Dempsey: Securing Syria’s Chemical Weapons Is ‘Feasible’

Part of the deal that avoided a U.S.-led military strike against the Assad regime for the use of chemical weapons was an agreement to secure or destroy Syria’s stockpile – something that many say will be nearly impossible to do in the midst of a civil war. But on Wednesday, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey said that it’s ‘feasible.’

“It’s a very challenging environment,” Dempsey said during a press briefing at the Pentagon with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. “Indicators are at this point, though, that the regime does have control of its stockpile. And so long as they agree to the framework which causes them to be responsible for the security, the movement, the protection of the investigators or the inspectors, then I think that the answer to your question is, it is feasible, but we’ve got to make sure we keep our eye on all of those things.”

The U.S. military is providing some planning assistance to the Organization for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons, which is the lead agency in charge of securing, destroying or moving Syria’s chemical weapons.

“The framework calls for it to be controlled, destroyed, or moved, and I think, in some combination … it is feasible. But those details will have to be worked by the OPCW,” Dempsey said.

Dempsey and Hagel both brushed off criticism from former Defense Secretaries Robert Gates and Leon Panetta, who differ on whether to launch a military strike against Syria for using chemical weapons but agree that President Obama should not have consulted Congress first. The two spoke at a forum Tuesday night at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

“It would weaken him” if Congress voted no, Gates said. “It would weaken our country. It would weaken us in the eyes of our allies, as well as our adversaries around the world.” Panetta agreed and pointed out that “Iran is paying very close attention to what we’re doing. There’s no question in my mind they’re looking at the situation, and what they are seeing right now is an element of weakness.” But he went a step further saying Obama should haven’t “subcontracted” the decision to strike to Congress. “Mr. President, this Congress has a hard time agreeing as to what the time of day is,” Panetta said.

Still, the two former defense secretaries do not agree on what course of action to take in Syria. Gates, who famously said that any military leader who ever launches another large-scale ground war “should have his head examined,” said Obama’s plan to “blow a bunch of stuff up over a couple days, to underscore or validate a point or a principle, is not a strategy.” Gates said if the U.S. launches a military attack against Syria, “in the eyes of a lot of people we become the villain instead of Assad.”

“Haven’t Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya taught us something about the unintended consequences of military action once it’s launched?” he said.

But Panetta said “when the president of the United States draws a red line, the credibility of this country is dependent on him backing up his word.” Once Obama decided to attack Syria for using chemical weapons, “then he should have directed limited action, going after Assad, to make very clear to the world that when we draw a line and we give our word … we back it up.”

Hagel said his predecessors have a right to their opinion, but “obviously I don’t agree with their perspectives. And I again understand what they’re saying, but as I have said a number of times in the last two weeks on Capitol Hill, I was part of the decision and the process that led up to the president’s decision. I support those decisions.”

In the meantime, Dempsey said the U.S. military would “maintain the credible threat of force [against Syria] should the diplomatic track fail.”