America is heading into an increasingly tumultuous decade in the Middle East, punctuated by repeated popular uprisings that will continue to dismantle long-standing power structures in the region, according to the Pentagon's top uniformed officer.
Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he believes the fallout from the ongoing Arab Spring movement will eventually lead to a more democratic Middle East.
That approaching period of increased instability comes as the Pentagon is beginning to shift its focus from the Middle East to the Pacific. The move was a key tenet in the White House's new national security strategy issued in February.
But as the U.S. military sets its sights on greater Asia, defense lawmakers wanted to know if the Pentagon is prepared for the looming chaos Dempsey predicted in the Middle East.
Rep. Rob Wittman (R-Va.) asked if the bloody suppression of populist rebels in Syria by the president Bashir al-Assad was a sign of things to come if uprisings spring up in other totalitarian regimes in the region.
"Are you concerned about the continual expansion of this effort by Assad in Syria maybe moving to other areas in the Middle East [such as] Turkey, Lebanon [or] Iraq?" Wittman asked.
Dempsey said the kind of violent backlash coming from the Assad regime would not be the template other regional powers would use to quell future uprisings.
"I don't see the Assad model spreading; I think quite the opposite. I think the model is that previously suppressed populations, seeing what's happening around them, are beginning to rebel against the traditional strongmen, who in many cases have been from the minority side of the demographic equation," Dempsey said.
Protests in Tunisia in December 2010 touched off a wave of protests across the Middle East in what came to be known as the Arab Spring.
Since then, protesters toppled political regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Libya. Syria is now in the midst of a "full-fledged insurgency" against Assad's rule.
On Syria itself, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta was grilled by panel members to forecast the potential outcomes in the country if and when Assad falls.
“What kind of government, what kind of relationships within Syria? What would be some of the things we could look for?" Rep. Lawrence Kissel (D-N.C.) asked.
Reiterating that the U.S. was still in favor of a political resolution to the Syrian uprising, Panetta said the best-case scenario would be the establishment of a coalition government that would unify the various rebel factions.
"That would be the best way for this to move forward," Panetta said.
Failing to do that could catapult Syria into an all-out civil war, as those factions would vie to fill the power vacuum created by Assad's departure.
"That would probably be the worst development," he said.
But Arizona Republican Rep. Trent Franks took issue with Panetta's best-case scenario, arguing that type of populist, coalition government would likely include Islamic fundamentalists.
Elements of the Muslim Brotherhood are already consolidating power within Egypt's new power structure, Franks said.
Based in Egypt, the brotherhood is the oldest and most powerful Islamist group in the Middle East that espouses a strict interpretation of Islamic tenets, known as Sharia law.
The group is also purported to have extensive ties to terror groups in the region. The terror group Hamas is a known offshoot of the organization.
However, members of the brotherhood have publicly chastised terror groups like al Qaeda for their use of violence in the region.
That said, Franks demanded details on how DoD was mitigating the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamic fundamentalists groups in these burgeoning democracies sprouting up across the Middle East.
Panetta argued that once ensconced into these coalition-type governments, fundamentalist groups will have no choice but to ratchet down their behavior to gain any power.
"Once you build some of these institutions where parties have to participate in governing . . . they have to look at how they can build coalitions and try to meet their responsibilities to the people," Panetta said.
Panetta was quick to point out that neither the U.S. nor any other global power could guarantee the actual outcome of these potential coalition governments.
But the fact these governments are even being established in the Middle East is a remarkable step in the right direction, he said.
"As a result of the Arab Spring, we've unleashed a lot of forces here. But one thing that I don't think we ought to lose sight of is that . . . we can direct and help direct those countries in a better direction than where they were," Panetta said.