Dempsey: Syrian rebels not ready to back U.S. interests

Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, appears before the Senate Armed Services Committee for a reappointment hearing, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, July 18, 2013. AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

The United States could take further action to tip the balance of power in Syria, but the rebels there may not at this point promote U.S. interests, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey said in a letter to a congressman this week.

"Syria today is not about choosing between two sides but rather about choosing one among many sides," Dempsey wrote to Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. "It is my belief that the side we choose must be ready to promote their interests and our when the balance shifts in their favor. Today they are not."

Dempsey's letter came in response to Engel's request for clarification on the military options in Syria. Specifically, Engel asked about the possibility of missile strikes on Syrian President Bashar al Assad's air bases, which would have a significant impact without fully engaging the United States on the ground militarily.

Dempsey said the United States could "destroy the Syrian Air Force" and negate Assad's ability to attack the opposition from the air. However, he said, that move would "escalate and potentially further commit the United States to the conflict" without doing anything to solve its underlying causes.

"In a variety of ways, the use of 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," he wrote.

Dempsey outlined the steps he said would represent the best U.S. strategy moving forward, noting that the United States "could if asked to do so, significantly increase our effort to develop a moderate opposition." He also wrote, "I believe we can assist in the humanitarian crisis on a far more significant scale."

Engel responded in a statement that he remains "deeply unsatisfied" with the U.S. strategy in Syria.

"I reject the notion that our involvement in Syria would simply constitute 'choosing sides' between one armed group and another," he said. "Rather, our involvement represents a choice between hastening the end of the Assad regime or continuing to allow the cycle of violence, displacement, and terror to continue unabated.

"We can work to build the capacity of the moderate opposition, as General Dempsey suggests," he went on, "but 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."

Last month, Dempsey laid out five options for U.S. intervention, but noted that each plan would come with a heavy price. In addition to limited air strikes, the options included establishing a no-fly zone over all of Syria, training the opposition forces in safe areas outside of Syria, establishing buffer zones inside Syria as safe havens for opposition fighters or destroying or seizing Syria's chemical weapons.

Adding to the urgency of the crisis, the Syrian opposition on Wednesday said that state security forces launched attacks in the suburbs of Damascus, allegedly killing hundreds of people in a "poisonous gas" attack. The ongoing conflict has claimed more than 100,000 lives during the past two years.

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