Dempsey: Syria “Different Challenge” from Libya

America’s top military officer cautions against wholeheartedly supporting the Syrian opposition.

General Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, answers questions from the Senate Armed Services Committee in Washington DC, November 15, 2011
General Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, answers questions from the Senate Armed Services Committee in Washington DC, November 15, 2011 (DoD/Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo)

America’s top military officer cautioned against armed support for Syria’s anti-government forces in an interview that aired on Sunday. “I think it’s premature to take a decision to arm the opposition movement in Syria because I would challenge anyone to clearly identify for me the opposition movement in Syria at this point,” he told CNN’s Fareed Zakaria.

General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, argued that an intervention in Syria would be far more complicated than was the case in Libya last year where Arab and NATO states enforced a no-fly zone last year to enable the opposition to topple longtime dictator Muammar Gaddafi. “It’s a different challenge,” he said, “geographically. It’s a different challenge in terms of the capability the Syrian military.”

They have a very sophisticated, integrated air defense system, for example. They have chemical and biological weapons.

Moreover, neighboring countries and great powers have more at stake in Syria’s future. “Turkey clearly has an interest,” said Dempsey. After fostering trade relations with Damascus in previous years, the Turks abandoned Syrian president Bashar al-Assad to demand his resignation. The Syrian opposition is allowed to coordinate on Turkish soil while refugees pour into the country despite Syrian demands that Ankara shut its southern border.

“Russia has a very important interest,” added Dempsey. Moscow vetoed a United Nations Security Council resolution that would have called on Assad to step down. The Kremlin fears a Sunni takeover of the country which could jeopardize its military relations with Syria.

“Iran has an interest.” Syria is its only ally in the Middle East and a conduit of Iranian support for Hezbollah, the militant Lebanese organization through which Tehran is able to threatened and harass Israel.

And what we see playing out is that not just those countries, in fact, potentially not all of them in any case, but we see the various groups who might think that at issue is a Sunni-Shia competition for regional control.

The uprising increasingly appears to break down along sectarian lines with the majority Sunni population, concentrated in the south and oil rich east of the country fighting to remove Assad from power while religious minorities and the urban middle class in the coastal provinces are wary of regime change, fearing an Islamist government that would inhibit their freedoms.

However, Western allies in the region, including Saudi Arabia, would like to see a Sunni takeover in order to weaken the Iranian axis and act as a counterweight to Nouri al-Maliki’s Iraq which is closer to Tehran than Saddam Hussein’s country was.

Russia may not particularly care for the fate of the Shia Crescent but it does care to establish a modicum of balance in the Middle East and prevent American interests from necessarily prevailing.