General Dempsey on Syria Intervention

By Jack Goldsmith
Monday, August 26, 2013, 9:03 AM

As at least some form of minimal military intervention in Syria now looks likely, it is worth reading carefully the letter that Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey sent last Monday to Representative Eliot Engel.  The letter includes this passage:

[T]here are certainly actions short of tipping the balance of the conflict [in Syria] that could impose a cost on them for unacceptable behavior. We can destroy the Syrian Air Force. The loss of Assad’s Air Force would negate his ability to attack opposition forces from the air, but it would also escalate and potentially further commit the United States to the conflict. Stated another way, it would not be militarily decisive, but it would commit us decisively to the conflict. In a variety of ways, the use of US military force can change the military balance, but it cannot resolve the underlying and historic ethnic, religious, and tribal issues that are fueling this conflict.

Syria today is not about choosing between two sides but rather about choosing one among many sides. It is my belief that the side we choose must be ready to promote their interests and ours when the balance shifts in their favor. Today, they are not. The crisis in Syria is tragic and complex. It is a deeply rooted, long-term conflict among multiple factions, and violent struggles for power will continue after Assad’s rule ends. We should evaluate the effectiveness of limited military options in this context.