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Syrian Conflict Will Take Years to Sort Out, Dempsey Says

By Jim Garamone
SEOUL, South Korea, —

The conflict in Syria will take years to sort out, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said today during an interview here.

The Syrian civil war has reverberated around the Middle East and involves a diverse cast of players and power blocs, said Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey. The chairman is here to meet with South Korean defense leaders.

“It’s very complex, it’s changing and most importantly we have to see it as a long-term issue,” he said during the interview. “The issues that underlie this conflict will not be solved any time soon. I think we’re looking at a decade of challenges in the region with Syria being the epicenter.”

The war in the Middle Eastern nation has gotten to the point where it has spilled over the borders. “It is not useful to look at Syria as Syria – meaning it’s not useful to look through the soda straw at the boundaries of Syria and believe you understand the situation,” he said.

The conflict stretches from Beirut to Damascus to Baghdad, he said, and it has historic roots. At the beginning, he said, the war had religious undertones, but he believes the more appropriate term should now be religious overtones. “A conflict that started as a rebellion has been hijacked by extremists on both sides – al-Qaida affiliates on one side and Lebanese Hezbollah on the other,” the chairman said. “The question seems to be what should we be doing to help our regional partners. And we are.”

The United States is taking a whole-of-government approach to the region, he said. From the military side, the United States is looking to see how to assist the Lebanese armed forces. U.S. service members are working with the Jordanian military and the United States is working with Turkey – a close NATO ally.

“Through the whole-of-government [approach,] we’re trying to apply economic factors assistance of other kinds to help identify a moderate opposition so as this thing develops we can have some influence in a positive way on the outcome,” he said.

Dempsey has been in touch with concerned chiefs of defense throughout the Middle East and Europe. “We’ve got incredible experience with building partners, and building military and police formations,” he said. “And so we’ve been in discussion about whether if we could find a way to collaborate on … the issue of whether we could develop a moderate opposition, in particular to stabilize some of the humanitarian issues in northern Jordan and southern Turkey.”

These discussions have not risen to the level of a plan, he said, more as a concept. “And I think it’s a valid concept to be thinking about in particular if [Syrian President Bashir] Assad – after the chemical issue is reconciled – if he fails to come to Geneva 2 with an intent to seek a political settlement,” Dempsey said. “Then I think like-minded nations might have the opportunity to contribute in different ways if we’re asked to.”