Syria conflict: Top US general outlines military options

Martin Dempsey The Senate is considering re-appointing Gen Dempsey for a second term

The top US military officer has outlined the costs, risks and benefits of possible American military involvement in the Syrian conflict.

Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Gen Martin Dempsey offered five military options, including limited strikes and establishing a no-fly zone.

But he said using force in Syria would be "no less than an act of war" and could cost the US billions of dollars.

Washington has so far ruled out military intervention in Syria.

Its role in the conflict is currently limited to delivering humanitarian aid to Syrian refugees in neighbouring countries and providing non-lethal help to the Syrian opposition.

'Act of war'

In an open letter to senators, Gen Dempsey analysed five military options the US military could potentially undertake in Syria:


This is the first time the US has explicitly laid out options for using force in Syria - a glimpse of what military leaders are, presumably, advising US President Barack Obama. And the advice seems to come down on the side on non-intervention.

The letter does not even attempt to address the wider challenges - of how to win UN authorisation when Russia seems dead set on blocking it; of how to secure support of war-weary Americans or reluctant allies; of the danger of further destabilising fragile neighbours; or of finding the US at war not just with Syria, but Iran and Russia.

So, aside from quietly arming Syria's moderate opposition, what would it take to make US intervention more likely?

Perhaps a catastrophic clash or massacre on an extraordinary scale might shift calculations. So might the danger of Lebanon or Jordan imploding, or a large-scale use of chemical weapons, which also threatened, say, Israel or Turkey.

And if a new status quo were to emerge which essentially partitioned Syria, then buffer zones in areas Assad forces no longer seemed likely to attack might seem more feasible.

  • training, advising and assisting the opposition
  • conducting limited strikes
  • establishing a no-fly zone
  • creating buffer zones inside Syria
  • controlling Damascus' chemical arms

Gen Dempsey estimated that the first option would cost about $500m (£325m) a year, while each of the other four actions would require roughly $1bn a month.

"The decision to use force is not one that any of us takes lightly. It is no less than an act of war," he wrote in the letter.

Gen Dempsey acknowledged that the outlined actions would strengthen the opposition and put more pressure on President Bashar al-Assad, but he warned the US should learn from its previous interventions, as in Afghanistan and Iraq.

"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," he said.

Gen Dempsey's letter was in response to questions by two members of the Senate Armed Services Committee which is considering re-appointing him for a second two-year term as chairman of the joint chiefs.

More than 90,000 people have been killed in Syria since the uprising again President Assad began in 2011, according to the UN.

A further 1.7 million have been forced to seek shelter in neighbouring countries.

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