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Letter: Syrian rebels wouldn’t back U.S. interests

Published: Updated:

The Obama administration is opposed to even limited U.S. military intervention in Syria because it believes rebels fighting the Assad regime wouldn’t support American interests if they were to seize power right now, Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrote to a congressman in a letter obtained by The Associated Press.

Dempsey said the military is clearly capable of taking out Syrian President Bashar Assad’s air force and shifting the balance of the country’s 2½-year war back toward the armed opposition.

But he said the approach would plunge the United States into another war in the Arab world and offer no strategy for peace in a nation plagued by ethnic rivalries.

He effectively ruled out U.S. cruise missile attacks and other options that wouldn’t require U.S. troops on the ground.

“Syria today is not about choosing between two sides but rather about choosing one among many sides,” Dempsey said in the letter August 19 to Rep. Eliot Engel. “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.”

Dempsey’s assessment will hardly please members of the fractured Syrian opposition leadership and some members of the Obama administration who have wanted greater support to help the rebellion end Assad’s four-decade family dynasty.

Despite internal disputes, some opposition groups have worked with the United States and European and Arab supporters to try to form a cohesive, inclusive movement dedicated to a democratic and multiethnic state.

But those fighting the Assad government range wildly in political and ethnic beliefs, and not all are interested in Western support.

The conflict has killed more than 100,000 people and ripped apart the delicate sectarian fabric of Syrian society.

Al-Qaeda-linked rebels and other extremist groups have been responsible for some of the same types of massacres and ethnic attacks that the Assad regime has committed.

Dempsey said Syria’s war was “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,” he wrote. “We should evaluate the effectiveness of limited military options in this context.”

Engel responded with disappointment Wednesday.

“Until we are prepared to severely diminish the regime’s ability to inflict harm upon its own citizens and even the playing field - such a moderate opposition stands little chance against the regime’s scuds, tanks and planes,” he said in a statement.

Despite calling for Assad to leave power in 2011, President Barack Obama has refused to allow the U.S. to be drawn directly into the conflict.

Officials have said, however, that the U.S. is prepared to provide lethal aid to moderate units among the opposition ranks. It’s unclear what, if any, weapons have been delivered so far.

In the past, Dempsey has told U.S. lawmakers the establishment of a no-fly zone to protect the Syrian rebels would require hundreds of U.S. aircraft at a cost as much as $1 billion a month, with no assurance that it would change the war’s momentum.

He also discouraged options such as training vetted rebel groups, limited strikes on Syria’s air defenses and creating a buffer zone for the opposition.

He stressed the need to avoid an outcome similar to Iraq or Afghanistan by preserving a functioning state for any future power transfer. And he cited risks such as lost U.S. aircraft.

Engel, who wants more forceful U.S. action, has proposed the use of cruise missiles and other weapons against Syrian government-controlled air bases.

The congressman said such strikes would ground Assad’s air force and reduce the flow of weapons to his government from Iran and Russia, while requiring no American troops on the ground in Syria or in its airspace.

Dempsey said this approach wouldn’t tip the balance against Assad and wouldn’t solve the deeper problems plaguing Syria.

“We can destroy the Syrian air force,” he said. “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.”

Instead, Dempsey spoke in favor of an expansion of the Obama administration’s current policy.

The U.S. can provide far greater humanitarian assistance and, if asked, do more to bolster a moderate opposition in Syria.

Such an approach “represents the best framework for an effective U.S. strategy toward Syria,” Dempsey said.