U.S. military assets remain ready to launch attacks if the diplomatic efforts to secure and dismantle the Syrian regime’s chemical arms should fail, senior defense officials said here today.
In a Pentagon news conference, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the military role today is limited.
“The current role of the military is to provide some planning assistance to the Organization for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons … who has the lead, and as well as to maintain the credible threat of force, should the diplomatic track fail,” Dempsey said.
The chairman said he believes forces loyal to Syrian president Bashar Assad have maintained control of the regime’s chemical weapons. The environment inside Syria is “very challenging,” he added.
Still, Dempsey said, he believes it is possible for the international community to work in the country.
“So long as [Syrian leaders] agree to the framework, which causes them to be responsible for the security, the movement, the protection of the investigators or the inspectors, then I think that … it is feasible,” Dempsey said. “But we’ve got to make sure we keep our eye on all of those things.”
The chairman acknowledged that disposing of chemical weapons is a complicated task.
“The framework calls for it to be controlled, destroyed or moved,” he said. “In some combination, it is feasible, but those details will have to be worked by the OPCW.”
Overall, the conflict in Syria ebbs and flows, the chairman said, and rebel groups in the country are concerned that the focus on chemical weapons will detract from the willingness of partners to support them.
“But … in terms of direct threats to U.S. interests, I think … that the elimination of the Assad regime's chemical capability is right at the top of our national interests,” Dempsey added. “If this process bears fruit and achieves its stated purpose, we will be in a better position.”