The U.S. military stands ready to do whatever it is ordered to in Syria by civilian leaders, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said here today.
Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey told reporters at a Christian Science Monitor news roundtable that nothing he has heard out of Syria in the past week changes the mission for U.S. military leaders.
"We've been planning, we're talking about the options, and we're looking to determine if these options are still valid or if anything has changed," Dempsey said. "That doesn't mean that anything we've heard over the past week wouldn't change the policy calculus."
Militarily, the U.S. task is to continue to engage partners in the region and "to continue to define options so that if we are asked to implement any, we will be ready," the nation's top military officer said.
Evidence indicates that the Syrian regime has used sarin, a deadly nerve agent, White House officials said last week. President Barack Obama said that use of chemical weapons would be a "game changer."
"The reason for that is that we have established international law and international norms that say when you use these kinds of weapons, you have the potential of killing massive numbers of people in the most inhumane way possible," the president said during a White House news conference this morning. "The proliferation risks are so significant that we don't want that genie out of the box."
But while physiological evidence indicates that chemical weapons were used in the country, that evidence is not concrete, the president said. "We don't know how they were used, when they were used, who used them," Obama said. "We don't have a chain of custody that establishes what exactly happened.
"And when I am making decisions about America's national security and the potential for taking additional action in response to chemical weapon use, I have got to make sure I've got the facts," he continued.
One option advanced by advocates of action in Syria is establishing a no-fly zone over at least part of the country. The persistent argument is that NATO flights over Libya were decisive in overthrowing Moammar Gadhafi's regime. But Syria is far different from Libya, Dempsey said. It has five times the air defense capability Libya had, with most of it concentrated in the western third of the country. Dempsey called the Syrian air defense "high-end."
"I'm not saying we couldn't beat that system, but it would be a greater challenge, take longer and require greater resources," he said.
Without going into specifics, Dempsey spoke about setting up a no-fly zone. "Any military operation tends to be a little more complicated," he said. "They tend to be more risky."
To an extent, the chairman said, the American military may be a victim of its own success. U.S. air power set up and maintained a no-fly zone over northern and southern Iraq for a decade. NATO maintained a no-fly zone over parts of Serbia and Kosovo in the 1990s, and NATO and coalition nations enforced a no-fly zone over Libya. "They made the very difficult look very manageable for a long time," Dempsey said.
A no-fly zone has to have several elements to succeed, the chairman said. "Although stealth technology exists, to have a no-fly zone, you can't just simply penetrate," he said. "You have to control, which means at some level you have to degrade the integrated air defense system."
Secondly, he said, any time the United States puts an aircraft over a dangerous area, there has to be a way to retrieve the pilot or crew in case they are shot down or forced down in hostile territory. "There has to be a search-and-rescue or a personnel recovery plan," the chairman said.
Another factor, Dempsey told the reporters, is what might happen outside a no-fly zone.
"I have to assume that the potential adversary is not going to just sit back and let us impose our will," he said. "They could in fact, take exception to the fact that we are imposing a no-fly zone, and outside their borders launch long-range rockets and missiles and asymmetric threats. So regionally in the area that bounds the no-fly zone, you'd better have your readiness condition up."