U.S. forces mulled as Syrian conflict deepens

Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey addresses graduates at the National Defense University. (WTOP/J.J. Green)
Gen. Martin Dempsey on the situation in Syria

J.J. Green | November 14, 2014 7:26 pm

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WASHINGTON – The death toll in Syria’s civil war is more than 93,000. The international community says some chemical weapons have been used. Russia and Iran are sending military support to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Hezbollah has jumped into the fray. Deadly clashes have broken out in Lebanon.

Rebels in Syria’s capitol were hit hard Tuesday by Assad’s forces. Saudi Arabia is now calling it a “genocidal and illegitimate regime.” Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal said the kingdom could not be silent and called for arms to be supplied to Syrian rebels.

As the conflict spirals out of control, the U.S. is under pressure to intervene. For more than a year, President Barack Obama and his advisors have been considering how far to go to help.

In an exclusive interview, Gen. Martin L. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, tells WTOP, “We’ve prepared options across the whole spectrum from arming (rebel forces) to use of our own military forces. Those decisions have not been made, so I won’t comment on them.”

As the Assad regime absorbs the international support, it appears to have a decided advantage over the rebels, which are still vulnerable to attack from aircraft and tanks.

Syrian rebels, who have been asking the U.S. for weapons for more than a year, may soon get them. The Obama administration has hinted it may supply rebels with anti-aircraft and anti-tank weapons.

But because of concerns about what U.S. intelligence sources are calling a “proxy war,” U.S. officials are being very deliberate in planning steps.

Dempsey says, “We’ve got military forces that are supporting our allies in the region, notably in Turkey and in Jordan. And so we’re not idle, but in terms of the application of our own military instrument power, that decision has not yet been made.”

But the rebels have been clear about their frustration in the slow drip of support. A rebel spokesman tells WTOP that promises of help have been overstated and under-delivered.

“We keep hearing, tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow and we don’t see anything that changes the game,” says Free Syrian Army spokesman Abu Rami.

The U.S. has been engaged in Syria. “It’s not that were not doing things already and that’s an important point. We’ve provided hundreds of millions of dollars in non-lethal assistance, says Dempsey.

The rebels tell WTOP they don’t want or need non-lethal assistance. They say they need weapons.

The Free Syrian Army has itself been accused of engaging in war crimes, which has contributed to the slow pace of international assistance.

Dempsey cautions that what’s happening on the ground in Syria mirrors the rest of the region.

“The conflict has been somewhat hijacked by extremists on both sides — Lebanese Hezbollah on the Shia side or on the regime side and elements of al Qaida on the Sunni side. It’s a conflict or a challenge that stretches from Beirut to Damascus to Baghdad.”

And Dempsey says the conflict will not come to a quick end.

“The suffering is absolutely atrocious and tragic at the same time.” But he added, “The internal factors contributing to the conflict are very deep-seeded and enduring and so my personal judgment is that we’re looking at a probably a ten-year challenge. This is not something that is going to be solved overnight no matter what anyone does.”

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