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Top US General Questions Syria War | The Nation

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Robert Dreyfuss

Bob Dreyfuss

News of America’s misadventures in foreign policy and defense.

Top US General Questions Syria War


A Syrian soldier, who has defected to join the Free Syrian Army, holds up his rifle and waves a Syrian independence flag in the Damascus suburb of Saqba January 27, 2012. (Reuters/Ahmed Jadallah)

To say that the Obama administration has bungled Syria understates the problem. They’re badly split and confused, and President Obama seems incapable of getting it right. Hawks want bombs-away, doves want to stay out, and Obama dithers—finally giving the hawks some of what they’ve been clamoring for by deciding to arm the rebels.

The actual arming of the rebels is to be carried out by the CIA, not the Pentagon. More and more, it appears as if the US military itself wants nothing to do with Syria. In a stunning letter yesterday, released by Senator Carl Levin’s office, General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called the conflict in Syria a “complex sectarian war,” and he warned in explicit detail that virtually every option involving the use of military force is staggeringly expensive and might not work.

On training and advising the rebels, Dempsey said:

Risks include extremists gaining access to additional capabilities, retaliatory cross-border attacks, and insider attacks or inadvertent association with war crimes due to vetting difficulties.

Bomb Syria? Said Dempsey:

The costs would be in the billions. … There is a risk that the regime could withstand limited strikes by dispersing its assets. Retaliatory attacks are also possible, and there is a probability for collateral damage impacting civilians and foreigners inside the country.

Establish a no-fly zone? Says Dempsey:

We would require hundreds of ground and sea-based aircraft, intelligence and electronic warfare support, and enablers for refueling and communications. Estimated costs are $500 million initially, averaging as much as a billion dollars per month over the course of a year.

And he concluded:

Once we take action, we should be prepared for what comes next. Deeper involvement is hard to avoid.

Lakhdar Brahimi, the very intelligent diplomat who’s in charge of the United Nations effort to find a diplomatic solution, told The New York Times that arming the rebels won’t fix things:

In an interview, Lakhdar Brahimi, the United Nations special envoy to Syria, expressed disappointment at the Congressional approval. “Arms do not make peace,” he said. “We would like to see the delivery of arms stopped to all sides.”

After dragging their feet, congressional intelligence committees have apparently approved the flow of arms to the rebels, which was announced by Obama six weeks ago but needed congressional support—since it is, incredibly, a “covert operation” by the CIA. Reports The Washington Post:

The agreement allows money already in the CIA’s budget to be reprogrammed for the Syria operation, a covert action that President Obama approved early last month. The infrastructure for the program, which also includes training, logistics and intelligence assistance—most of it based in Jordan—is already in place and the arms would begin to flow within the next several weeks.

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Meanwhile—even though in today’s briefing for reporters White House spokesman Jay Carney went over the top, saying that President Assad of Syria wants to “murder the entire country”—the administration has pretty much admitted that Assad has taken control of the war and that his departure isn’t going to happen anytime soon. According to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Assad is ready for peace talks—but of course the badly split, Al Qaeda-containing, prisoner-beheading rebels aren’t. Said Lavrov, meeting with a top Syrian official:

“To our regret, in contrast to the Syrian government, a significant part of the opposition, including the National Coalition, does not show such readiness.”

Meanwhile, another former top US military leader, the recently departed commander of Centcom, General James Mattis, has also weighed in urging caution before going into Syria. Said Mattis:

“Then we need to be very clear about our military end state and political end state. Otherwise you’ll invade a country, pull down a statue, and say, ‘Now what do we do?’ ” Mattis said.

In a panel moderated by CNN’s Wolf Blitzer at the Aspen Security Forum, Mattis questioned whether US interests are really at stake:

A former commander of U.S. Central Command said the United States needs to determine an endgame in Syria before it takes further military action in the beleaguered country.

In a panel moderated by CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, retired Gen. James Mattis told the Aspen Security Forum on Saturday that escalated involvement in Syria by the U.S. military would lead to “a full-throated, very, very serious war.”…

Mattis cautioned that setting up a no-fly zone would be a complicated and costly endeavor that is not a pragmatic military solution in a conflict where most of the violence is occurring on the ground.

“We have no moral obligation to do the impossible and harm our children’s future because we think we just have to do something,” Mattis said. “The killing will go on on the ground because they’re not using aircraft to do most of the killing.”

Has Obama already bungled peace negotiations with Russia on the Syria?

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