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White House Reaffirms Syrian Rebel Support as Pentagon Outlines Options, Risks

July 23, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Talk of stepped-up assistance for Syrian rebels came from the White House after a letter from Gen. Martin Dempsey was released, outlining the Pentagon's options for going beyond humanitarian aid. Judy Woodruff considers the risks with The Washington Institute’s Jeffrey White and John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Syrian rebels continued to wage a new northern offensive today, warning civilians off a road that serves as a crucial supply route for regime forces.

Here in the United States, officials reconsidered their options for how to support the rebels against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

JAY CARNEY, White House press secretary: I have no crystal ball here to predict when Assad will go.

JUDY WOODRUFF: At the White House today, press secretary Jay Carney reaffirmed the administration’s position that the Syrian president is on his way out and that President Obama will continue to support the opposition.

JAY CARNEY: The president’s commitment will continue. And he believes we need to continue to step up our assistance because of the imperative that Assad not be allowed to essentially murder an entire nation.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Talk of stepped-up assistance came after the release of a letter written by Gen. Martin Dempsey, America’s highest-ranking military officer, outlining the Pentagon’s options for going beyond humanitarian aid.

Addressed to Senate Armed Services chair Carl Levin, it listed five options: training, assisting and advising the opposition forces, conducting limited air and missile strikes against Assad targets, establishing and enforcing a no-fly zone, using air and ground forces to set up buffer zones to protect the borders of Turkey and Jordan, and using a combination of special operations forces and ground forces to take control of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles.

Dempsey wrote that these operations could involve thousands of U.S. troops, cost billions of dollars and the use of force would constitute — quote — “no less than an act of war.” And he warned, “Once we take action, we should be prepared for what comes next. Deeper involvement is hard to avoid.”

The discussion of U.S. options comes as the Syrian conflict enters its third year, with more than 93,000 people already dead and millions of refugees displaced in and around Syria. Opposition forces have lost ground over the past six months and some have wondered whether lethal support may be too late in coming.

Even so, The Washington Post reported today that the House and Senate Intelligence Committees last week approved Obama administration plans to ship weapons to the rebels through the CIA. According to reports, those arms could begin to flow to Syrian rebels in the next few weeks.

For more on possible U.S. military intervention in Syria, I’m joined by Jeffrey White, a former senior analyst at the Defense Intelligence Agency, now at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and John Mearsheimer, a West Point graduate and former Air Force officer, now a professor at the University of Chicago.

And we thank you both, gentlemen, for being with us.

Jeffrey White, to you first. Do you get a sense from reading this letter sent by Gen. Dempsey of what the Obama administration is likely to do?

JEFFREY WHITE, Washington Institute for Near East Policy: I think we’re going to see a small-scale commitment of military resources to support the rebels, nothing large, nothing too lethal, small arms and ammunition, maybe not even anti-tank weapons.

My sense is that is a — you know, a slow movement towards a potentially greater commitment, but nothing really dramatic in the way of arms.


JUDY WOODRUFF: Small arms and ammunition. And, in fact, this Washington Post story we just referenced, John Mearsheimer, says that that’s already what’s been approved. What more do you see the administration prepared to do?

JOHN MEARSHEIMER, University of Chicago: I don’t think the administration is prepared to do anything else.

It’s very clear from Gen. Dempsey’s letter that the Pentagon is opposed to upping the ante in Syria. And it’s very clear from the way President Obama has been dragging his feet that he has no interest in intervening in Syria either.

And I think this is the smart policy. We have no strategic interest in what happens in Syria. It is not a vital national interest that is at stake here. And, furthermore, when you look at the different strategies that we might employ to try to fix this problem, it’s quite clear that none of them work. And most of them will just make a bad situation even worse.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Jeffrey White, how do you read these five recommendations from Gen. Dempsey, I mean, ranging from very light assistance, just advising and training the rebels, all the way to going in with ground forces and securing the chemical weapons?

JEFFREY WHITE: Well, I think he covered, you know, what is pretty much acknowledged as the spectrum of available options.

There are some nuances to some of the things he talked about that might be worth exploring. But, basically, he laid out what it is that people have been talking about for over a year now.

I think he stressed the downside here, the downside risks and the costs. He definitely put a negative spin on what U.S. intervention could look like, the risks, the costs, the uncertainties involved in intervention.

So he definitely gave it a, you know, we would rather not do this kind of a spin on it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, do you think, based on what you know, the administration is any closer to making a decision, beyond these light arms that we have been talking about?

JEFFREY WHITE: I don’t think so. I think that they’re very reluctant to go with any significant military effort in Syria. That’s been the case for a long time. And I don’t think that has changed dramatically.

What we see is a reluctant willingness in the face of a lot of pressure to make a minimal commitment.

JUDY WOODRUFF: John Mearsheimer, you said you think the administration doesn’t want to get involved, based on what you read here, but do you learn any more from looking at this at what they may be weighing?

JOHN MEARSHEIMER: Well, I think that the administration has weighed all the options.

You would expect the administration to weigh all the options. And when they have looked carefully at each one of them, it’s become manifestly apparent that none of them can fix the problem. I think this is a situation where, if we had a magic bullet or we had a magic formula, the administration would probably go in and try to fix the problem. This is how we ended up going into Iraq.

Most people thought that we could go into Iraq, win a quick and decisive victory and get out quickly. But that proved to be wrong. And if you look at our track record over the past 12 years in Iraq and Libya and in Afghanistan and even in Egypt, it’s hard to believe that anybody would think at this point in time that we could go in and fix the problem in Syria, which is at least as messy as those four other countries, if not messier.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Jeffrey White, what do you think the administration should be doing? What should the United States be doing?


I think we should be doing more. I have been an advocate of, you know, serious intervention for over a year. I think we do have strategic interests at stake in Syria. It’s a huge country in the middle of the Middle East. There’s an enormous humanitarian problem under way there. We see it’s become the playground for Hezbollah and Iran and other forces (INAUDIBLE) to the United States.

So we do have interests there. And we do have capabilities. To fix the problem in Syria, I think, puts too high a standard on what can be accomplished. But we can do things to change the trajectory of the war.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Like what? I mean, be specific. What could be done? What should be done?

JEFFREY WHITE: At the low end is robust indirect military intervention in support of the rebels. That means arms, significant arms. That means training, intelligence, cooperation and help in getting them to articulate and implement a military strategy for the war, which they have yet to do that.

And if necessary, it means direct U.S. military action, hopefully with our allies and so on.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Troops on the ground?

JEFFREY WHITE: Not necessarily troops on the ground, but we have the capability to strike effectively at the major military assets of the regime, artillery, armor, missiles, aircraft.

We could do a lot to change the regime’s capabilities from the outside of the country with weapons fired from offshore or by flying over the country itself.

JUDY WOODRUFF: John Mearsheimer, is that a plan that makes sense to you?


And I want to make two points. First of all, there’s no question, as Gen. Dempsey makes clear in his letter, that we have the military capability to shift the balance of power and topple Assad. There’s no question about that. But we cannot go in with a light footprint.

We would have to go in with a lot of military force, because Assad is backed by Iran, the Russians and Hezbollah. He has a lot of cards to play. And he will be tough to take down. So, we would have to go in, in a big way. That’s point number one.

Point number two is toppling him is the easy part. The hard part comes when we have to put the country together and create a stable system so that we can get out. This is exactly the problem that we faced in Iraq. There wasn’t much difficulty knocking off Saddam Hussein. The military part of the story is the easy part.

What comes afterwards, the political problem, that’s when the trouble starts. And when you look at a country like Syria and you see the centrifugal forces at play in that country, you see how badly fractured the opposition groups are, it’s hard to see how this story has a happy ending.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Jeffrey White, what about this argument that it’s one thing, it’s doable to topple Assad militarily, but after it gets much more complicated?

JEFFREY WHITE: Sure. It’s messy. Syria is an incredibly complex, difficult problem to analyze, to fix, to do anything about.

I acknowledge all of those things. But here’s the other side of that story is, if we don’t do anything, what are we going to get?

If we don’t get ourselves involved, we’re going to get a situation where the regime either fights on against the rebels for a long time, as more people die and more disruption, more Iranian influence, more Hezbollah influence, or we’re going to get a regime victory.

And does anyone in their right mind want a regime victory in this situation, a regime that’s killed upwards of 100,000 people, which is supported by the enemies of the United States? Is that what we want? If there isn’t effective intervention on the side of the rebels, that’s very likely what we’re going to get.

The regime is winning right now. That needs to be changed. And U.S. intervention could do that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right. We are going to need to leave it there.

Two — all right, Mr. John Mearsheimer, a very quick response.

JOHN MEARSHEIMER: We lived with the Assad regime for 43 years. So there’s no reason we couldn’t live with the Assad regime for another 43 years. The idea that it’s a strategic threat to the United States, I do not believe is a serious argument.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right. We will leave it there.

John Mearsheimer, Jeffrey White, we thank you both.