Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, echoed the caution that President Obama has expressed about whether the United States should get involved militarily in Syria.
There have been renewed calls for the Obama administration to take military action or provide lethal assistance to opposition groups after the White House said last week it had evidence Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces used chemical weapons.
While the use of such weapons would cross the “red line” set by Obama last year, the president has said he is taking a cautious approach and waiting until the use of chemical weapons can be verified before taking any further steps in Syria.
Dempsey said Tuesday that military options are ready for the president if he chooses. He noted that the reports over the past week have not changed military plans in Syria.
But Dempsey also made clear that at this point he is not recommending the use of military force.
“If it becomes, clear to me or I am ordered to do so, we will act,” the chairman said. “At this point, that hasn’t occurred.”
Many lawmakers have called for the creation of a no-fly zone or safe zone for the rebels. Dempsey said the military is capable of doing that, but warned it would be much more complicated to disable Syria’s air defenses than it was to take out Libya’s in 2011.
“In Syria you’ve got five times more air defense systems, some of which are high-end systems, which means higher altitude, longer range,” he said.
“More importantly, they’re all collapsed into the western one-third of the country. So it’s a much denser and more sophisticated system,” Dempsey said. “The U.S. military has the capability to defeat that system, but it would be a greater challenge, take longer and require more resources.”
Dempsey said that in order to take actions against Syria’s air defenses, the U.S. military would need to position forces to be ready to extract any airmen who went down in hostile territory.
He also noted that only 10 percent of the Syrian opposition casualties have occurred through the Assad regime’s use of air power, raising the question of how much a no-fly zone would accomplish.
“None of these are reasons not to take action,” Dempsey said. “But they all should be considered before we take our first step.”