Pentagon weighs military strikes into Syria; clear risks remain

Diplomacy first, Panetta and Dempsey tell lawmakers.

The military campaign would begin with U.S. warplanes jamming Syria’s air-defense systems and then destroying them. With those systems out of the way, American aircraft would help create a no-fly zone to protect the country’s pro-democracy protesters and a humanitarian corridor to allow them to receive food, water, and medicine. The U.S. and its allies would also decide whether to directly arm the rebels as the opposition forces made a final push to oust Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad.

That, at least, would be the most likely scenario if President Obama ordered the American military to directly intervene in Syria, according to the Pentagon’s top leaders.

Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Wednesday, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey said that the U.S. was pushing for a diplomatic solution to the Syrian crisis and had deep concerns about using force there.

Still, the two men said that the United States was considering an array of ideas for protecting the Syrian people including, Panetta said, “potential military options.” Dempsey, in his testimony, said that those options would likely include the destruction of Syria’s air defenses and the creation of a no-fly zone.

At the same time, the two made clear that strikes weren’t imminent. The Pentagon had begun war-gaming various scenarios, Dempsey said, but had yet to present them to the president. Panetta said that the U.S. was still working to assemble an international coalition against Assad so that Washington wouldn’t have to act alone.

Dempsey also pointed out that Syria’s air defenses are five times more sophisticated than those in Libya, making airstrikes riskier and more complicated. Panetta, for his part, said that the systems had been set up in heavily populated areas, which meant that American strikes could cause “severe collateral damage.”

The testimony came as the Syrian crisis – and the international debate about how to handle it – continued to escalate. Outside groups estimate that Assad’s forces have killed at least 7,500 people and effectively leveled rebel-held cities such as Homs. The U.S. and its allies have slapped hard-hitting economic and political sanctions on Damascus, but Russia and China have prevented the United Nations Security Council for authorizing stronger measures.

Here at home, an array of prominent senators is calling for the U.S. to do more to stop the bloodshed. Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., Joe Lieberman, ID-Conn., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., have pressed for U.S. military involvement in Syria, with McCain this week explicitly calling for American airstrikes against Syrian forces.

At Wednesday’s hearing, McCain criticized the administration for not acting more quickly and aggressively to force Assad out of power.

“In past situations, America has led. We’re not leading, Mr. Secretary,” McCain told Panetta early in the hearing. Later, McCain asked, “How many more have to die? 10,000 more? 20,000 more?”

Panetta and Dempsey made it clear that they shared McCain’s outrage at Assad’s continued slaughter and that they believe that he long ago lost any legitimate claim to power. Panetta likened the brutality and scope of Assad’s crackdown to the violence unleashed by Chinese forces when they crushed pro-democracy protests in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in the 1990s.

But the secretary and the chairman stressed again and again that using the American military to push Assad from power would be far more challenging than similar humanitarian interventions into Libya and Bosnia. In addition to the size and sophistication of Syria’s air defenses, they pointed out that Syria has a large military; the active assistance of Iran, which is shipping antitank missiles and other armaments into the country; and a stockpile of chemical and biological weapons a hundred times larger than that in Libya.

They also warned that the U.S. was unsure of the exact makeup of the Syrian rebel groups, including whether they had ties to al-Qaida or other extremist groups. Panetta and Dempsey said that the rebels didn’t appear to have the kind of clear hierarchy and well-organized leadership structure that existed in Libya.

Still, the Syria conundrum won’t end anytime soon. Assad’s forces have crushed the opposition inside Homs and have clear momentum on the ground. The Obama administration faces a difficult and unwanted choice: Intervene militarily despite the clear risks of doing so, or rely on sanctions and diplomatic pressure despite the clear risks of failing to stop an unfolding humanitarian disaster.