Syrian rebels won't advance U.S. interests: Joint Chiefs chairman

Olivier Knox

The United States should not intervene militarily in Syria’s civil war because rebels battling Bashar Assad’s regime aren’t prepared to promote American interests if the tide shifts in their favor, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey said in a letter released Wednesday.

Dempsey, the country’s top uniformed military commander, also warned against greater U.S. military involvement because while “we can destroy the Syrian Air Force,” such a step would “escalate and potentially further commit the United States to the conflict."

"Syria today is not about choosing between two sides but rather about choosing one among many sides," Dempsey wrote in the Aug. 19 letter to Democrats on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. "It is my belief that the side we choose must be ready to promote their interests and ours when the balance shifts in their favor. Today, they are not."

Instead, he suggested, America should provide humanitarian aid on a “far more significant scale” and “significantly increase our effort to develop a moderate opposition to Assad.”

Dempsey’s letter became public amid news of a possible chemical weapons attack by Assad’s regime against the opposition. If confirmed, and if the death toll cited by Assad foes is accurate, it could be the worst chemical weapons attack since Saddam Hussein’s government killed as many as 5,000 Iraqi Kurds with poison gas in the city of Halabja in 1988.

The White House had no immediate response to the reports.

Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in a statement responding to Dempsey’s letter that he was “deeply unsatisfied with our current strategy in Syria” and charged that the United States was content to “stand on the sidelines” of the conflict.

“I reject the notion that our involvement in Syria would simply constitute ‘choosing sides’ between one armed group and another,” Engel 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.”

Engel warned that “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.”