Pentagon details options for US military intervention in Syria

Joint Chiefs of Staff briefs Congress but urges caution before any action

Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey testifies before a Congressional committee in June (KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images).

Direct military involvement in Syria would cost the U.S. around $1 billion a month and would run the risk of drawing America into a full-blown war, according to the top-ranking uniformed officer in the U.S. military.

Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey on Monday released a letter to the Senate Armed Services Committee in which he outlined five possible military options for helping Syrian rebels topple the Assad regime, ranging from providing arms and training to establishing no-fly zones or conducting limited attacks on military targets.

Dempsey emphasized that his advice on possible involvement was independent of whether any increased role was necessarily his preference.

“You deserve my best military advice on how military force could be used in order to decide whether it should be used,” he said in the letter.

While sharing an operational assessment of options in Syria, Dempsey warned about the dangers of additional involvement by making implicit reference to the U.S. experience 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.

Speaking of the possible “unintended consequences” of an increased military role, he added that “we could inadvertently empower extremists or unleash the very chemical weapons we seek to control” if the state’s institutions failed without a feasible opposition to fill the vacuum.

Dempsey, nonetheless, outlined five options he said the U.S. military was prepared to undertake, which would have the “likely” effect of altering the military balance of power against the regime of Bashar al-Assad: training and advising the opposition, conducting limited stand-off strikes, establishing a no-fly zone, establishing buffer zones and controlling chemical arms.

Dempsey’s letter was a response to questions posed by two members of the Senate Armed Services Committee -- Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI) and Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) -- last week following a confrontational hearing called to consider Dempsey's nomination to a second two-year term as chairman of the Joint Chiefs.

The U.S. military's current role in the conflict is limited to delivering humanitarian aid, providing security assistance to Syria's neighbors and providing nonlethal help to the Syrian opposition.

Also on Monday, House of Representatives Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers told Reuters that Congress was on the verge of allowing President Obama to move ahead with plans to increase material support to some Syrian rebels in the form of small weaponry.

The president announced the policy shift in June in the aftermath of international reports that the Assad's regime had used chemical weapons in the two-year old Syrian civil war, an alleged “red line” for the administration.

The June announcement, however, has thus far had no tangible effect on the ground, as intelligence committee holds in the House and Senate were placed upon the president’s plan for fear that additional support to rebels would either be ineffective in turning the tide against Assad or that some weapons might fall into the hands of rebel groups linked to al Qaeda.

But Rogers said on Monday that the intelligence committees had come around to the administration plan.

"We believe we are in a position that the administration can move forward," he said.

One half of the delay was broken on July 12 when members of the Senate Intelligence Committee who had questioned the wisdom of arming the insurgents decided behind closed doors to tentatively agree that the administration could go ahead with its plans, but sought updates as the covert effort proceeded.

Now, the House committee has also given at its own cautious go-ahead.

Committee sessions on arming the rebels are classified and have been held in secret. Senior government figures like Secretary of State John Kerry have briefed lawmakers behind closed doors to persuade them to back the White House's Syria strategy.

Rogers said he still had "very strong concerns" about the plan's chances of success.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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