Dempsey: Syrian opposition not aligned with US interests

Lawmakers from both parties have called for the Obama administration to set up a no-fly zone or use air strikes in Syria to push back against Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces, which have made gains in recent months against the opposition.

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The administration has resisted taking military action but said it would begin providing military aid to rebel groups after determining that Assad’s regime used chemical weapons.

There were reports Wednesday of a new chemical attack near Damascus that killed hundreds of people.

Dempsey and opponents of military action have repeatedly raised concerns about the splintered Syrian opposition, which includes both secular and Islamist groups — including some with ties to al Qaeda.

Dempsey's position has been criticized by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who briefly threatened to hold up Dempsey’s confirmation after the two bickered over Syria at Dempsey's confirmation hearing.

Dempsey told Engel that U.S. military leaders were not “reticent, weary or risk averse,” but that they were “pragmatic about the limits of military force.”

He said that the United States could destroy the Syrian Air Force, something lawmakers have called for, but argued it would draw the U.S. into the conflict for little, if any, gain.

“It would not be militarily decisive, but it would commit us decisively to the conflict,” Dempsey wrote.

Engel said in a statement that he was “deeply unsatisfied” with U.S. strategy in Syria and argued that the United Sates should level the playing field for the opposition.

“I reject the notion that our involvement in Syria would simply constitute ‘choosing sides’ between one armed group and another,” Engel said. “Rather, our involvement represents a choice between hastening the end of the Assad regime or continuing to allow the cycle of violence, displacement and terror to continue unabated.”

Dempsey only mentioned nonlethal aid to the opposition in his letter to Engel.

Engel requested Dempsey’s opinion on limited military action in response to a letter he’d sent Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) assessing possible military options.

In that letter, Dempsey wrote that the cost to maintain a no-fly zone could be as high as $1 billion per month.