Jeffrey Goldberg reports that Secretary of State John Kerry wanted President Obama to go much further in his shift in policy in Syria. He wanted Obama to order air strikes at targets inside Syria that are controlled by Assad but the Pentagon was strongly opposed to the idea.
At a principals meeting in the White House situation room, Secretary of State John Kerry began arguing, vociferously, for immediate U.S. airstrikes against airfields under the control of Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime — specifically, those fields it has used to launch chemical weapons raids against rebel forces.
It was at this point that the current chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the usually mild-mannered Army General Martin Dempsey, spoke up, loudly. According to several sources, Dempsey threw a series of brushback pitches at Kerry, demanding to know just exactly what the post-strike plan would be and pointing out that the State Department didn’t fully grasp the complexity of such an operation.
Dempsey informed Kerry that the Air Force could not simply drop a few bombs, or fire a few missiles, at targets inside Syria: To be safe, the U.S. would have to neutralize Syria’s integrated air-defense system, an operation that would require 700 or more sorties. At a time when the U.S. military is exhausted, and when sequestration is ripping into the Pentagon budget, Dempsey is said to have argued that a demand by the State Department for precipitous military action in a murky civil war wasn’t welcome.
Officials with knowledge of the meeting say that Kerry gave as good as he got, and that the discussion didn’t reach aneurysm-producing levels. But it was, in diplomatic parlance, a full and frank vetting of the profound differences between State and Defense on Syria. Dempsey was adamant: Without much of an entrance strategy, without anything resembling an exit strategy, and without even a clear-eyed understanding of the consequences of an American airstrike, the Pentagon would be extremely reluctant to get behind Kerry’s plan.
That would have been a very, very bad idea, far worse than merely arming the rebels (which ones? With what weapons? No one knows at this point). This story causes me to lose a great deal of confidence in Kerry and gain a little bit in Obama because he rejected the idea. Obama has acknowledged that there could very well be a slippery slope leading to more aggressive intervention and he says he won’t do that. I sure hope he means it. I’m also very glad to hear that the military leadership is not gung ho to get involved and, in fact, seem to be very reluctant to do so.