Testifying with Panetta, Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told lawmakers a “commanders’ estimate” has been discussed with Obama and the National Security Council, including assessments of “potential missions, the enemy order of battle,” how much time it would take and “the troops we have available.”
Panetta said that “we have not done the detailed planning because we are waiting for the direction of the president to do that.”
Obama said Tuesday that military intervention at this point would be “a mistake” and warned against “the notion that the way to solve every one of these problems is to deploy our military.”
Even as Republicans have accused Obama of offering a weak response to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s onslaught against civilian opponents, and some have called for U.S. airstrikes, “others are concerned about the dangers of involving ourselves in yet another conflict in that part of the world,” Panetta said.
The hearing followed earlier Senate testimony by Gen. James Mattis, head of the Central Command, that Assad’s forces are “gaining physical momentum on the battlefield” and that the slaughter of civilians will “get worse before it gets better.”
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has led the call for the United States, ideally acting with allies, to begin airstrikes in Syria to stop the carnage. “How many more have to die — 10,000 more, 20,000 more?” he asked Panetta and Dempsey.
But Dempsey said the attacks necessary to destroy Syrian air defenses would be long, complicated and risky because the systems are five times more sophisticated than those attacked by the NATO-led coalition in Libya last year.
“It would take an extended period of time and a great number of aircraft,” Dempsey said. Because most Syrian air defenses are located in the heavily populated western part of the country, where most of the violence against opposition strongholds is taking place, civilian casualties and other collateral damage would be high, he said.
The “next level of detail,” following the commanders’ estimate, should Obama request it, would be “for us to take actual units, from someplace else, applying them against that template in order to come up with operational concepts,” Dempsey said. “How would we do it?”
Any U.S. action in Syria, he said, would be a “zero sum game” that would require military assets transferred from other missions.
Right now, Panetta said, the administration is trying to build international consensus. “What doesn’t make sense is to take unilateral action at this point,” he said. “Before I recommend that we put our sons and daughters in uniform in harm’s way,” the United States needs to “make very sure we know what the mission is, whether we can achieve that mission, at what price, and whether or not it will make matters better or worse.”