Report

Breaking: Every Military Option in Syria Sucks

Intervention could cost a billion per month, top officer tells senators.

Using lethal force to strike high-value targets inside Syria would require hundreds of U.S. aircraft, ships and submarines, while establishing a no-fly zone would cost as much as a billion dollars per month over the course of a year, according to a new analysis of military options there by the nation's top military officer. Another option, in which the U.S. attempts to control Syria's chemical weapons stock, would first require thousands of special operations forces and other ground forces, wrote Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Marty Dempsey. Oh, and well over a billion dollars per month.

Under pressure to publicly provide his views on military intervention in Syria, Dempsey told Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin what most people already knew: there are few good options. But for the first time, Dempsey provided an analysis of each option and its cost, providing new fodder for thinking about a conflict that has waged for more than two years, killed nearly 100,000 people and displaced hundreds of thousands more.

Dempsey outlined five options, including training, advising and assisting the opposition; conducting limited stand-off strikes; establishing a no-fly zone; creating a buffer zone to protect certain areas inside Syria; and finally, controlling Syria's chemical weapons. Any of those options would likely "further the narrow military objective of helping the opposition and placing more pressure on the regime," Dempsey wrote. But any or all of them could slip the U.S. into another new war. "We have learned from the past 10 years, however, that it is not enough to simply alter the balance of military power without careful consideration of what is necessary in order to preserve a functioning state," Dempsey wrote Levin in the memo, a copy of which was released publicly late Monday. "We must anticipate and be prepared for the unintended consequences of our action."

As requested after a heated exchange in the Senate on Thursday over U.S. policy in Syria, Dempsey dutifully gave the pros and cons for each option. But in what amounts to the most candid analysis of the Pentagon's thinking on Syria to date, Dempsey couched each as highly risky. Establishing a no-fly zone, for example, comes with inherent risk: "Risks include the loss of U.S. aircraft, which would require us to insert personnel recovery forces," Dempsey wrote. "It may also fail to reduce the violence or shift the momentum because the regime relies overwhelmingly on surface fires - mortars, artillery and missiles." Conducting limited strikes on high-value targets inside Syria could have a "significant degradation of regime capabilities" and would increase the likelihood of individuals deserting the regime. On the other hand, he wrote, "there is a risk that the regime could withstand limited strikes by dispersing its assets." Retaliatory attacks and collateral damage from the U.S. strikes could create large and sometimes unforeseen problems, despite the best planning.

All of this would come, Dempsey argued, at a time of enormous budget uncertainty for the Pentagon that has forced furloughs of civilian workers, cuts to programs and allowed readiness rates to drop to low levels, Pentagon officials say. "This is especially critical as we lose readiness due to budget cuts and fiscal uncertainty," Dempsey wrote. "Some options may not be feasible in time or cost without compromising our security elsewhere."

Dempsey still hedged the issue of his own view in an unclassified forum, never quite providing what he would recommend to his boss, President Barack Obama. But he also conceded that intervention in some form could make a difference. "As we weigh our options, we should be able to conclude with some confidence that the use of force will move us toward the intended outcome."

It still amounts to the start of a new conflict after more than a decade getting out of two other ones.  "I know that the decision to use force is not one that any of us takes lightly, it is no less an act of war," Dempsey wrote.

It was unclear if Dempsey's letter, intended to appease Sen. John McCain and Sen. Levin, would prompt them to move forward on his reappointment to another two years as Chairman. A few days before the hearing, a senior officer from the Pentagon had provided a classified briefing for senior Hill members and officials, according to a senior Hill staffer. But the takeaway may have been what got McCain so fired up: Pentagon officials told Hill staffers there is no clear military direction on Syria because there is no clear policy guidance from the White House.

Now Dempsey's reappointment as Chairman hangs in the balance as Levin and McCain seek additional information from Dempsey on Syria -- knowing full well that the nation's senior military officer is getting directions from the White House on Syria that are ambiguous at best.

The issue stems in part from how Dempsey handled himself last week when McCain demanded he provide his personal views on military intervention in Syria. Dempsey essentially refused to answer to McCain's satisfaction, raising the question squarely: what should military officers say when they're asked their personal opinion in public?

When senior officers shuffle up to Capitol Hill for confirmation or oversight hearings, they all must affirm their answer to one of a handful of boilerplate questions, but this one is often central to the veracity of their testimony: "Do you agree, when asked, to give your personal views, even if those views differ from the administration in power?"

It's all very pro forma. As all officers appearing for testimony do, Dempsey answered the question in the affirmative. But he seemed to trip up on it later during the hearing.

Dempsey could have known it was coming. McCain, increasingly agitated at White House policy over Syria, tested him over his views on military intervention. "Do you believe the continued costs and risks of our inaction in Syria are now worse for our national security interests than the costs and risks associated with limited military action?" McCain demanded. But Dempsey would not answer the question directly, saying he would instead share his views privately with the Commander-in-Chief, President Obama.

"Senator, I am in favor of building a moderate opposition and supporting it," Dempsey said during the tense exchange. "The question whether to support it with direct kinetic strikes is a president for a -- is a decision for our elected officials, not for the senior military leader of the nation."

McCain has now locked his confirmation until he gets more answers. There are two ways to look at Dempsey's decision Thursday before the Senate panel. Some believe the general, well regarded but not known for rocking the boat, stood his ground and took a stand against a Congressional overseer thought to be bullying the administration over its Syria policy. Others were astounded that Dempsey seemed so cocky, even arrogant, at one point shooting a question back to McCain about "recent experience" with intervention -- in Iraq.

Senior officers, experts and other observers all believe that Dempsey's number one job was to obey what any senior officer will tell you is Golden Rule of confirmations: don't filibuster, don't grandstand and get confirmed. If Dempsey was being asked an uncomfortable question he couldn't avoid, he should have politely asked to answer it in private session, they say.

"Military leaders, when they answer that question, they get from the Senate in the affirmative, they are absolutely committing themselves to providing their personal views to members of Congress," one senior officer said. But those personal views aren't always appropriate for a public setting such as a confirmation hearing, the officer said, and Dempsey did the right thing - even if he didn't do it in the right way. "In my view, it was not inappropriate for Dempsey to withhold his views in that particular setting."

Others agree, too. Some officials who are familiar with the process of preparing for testimony say commanders should be able to retain their best military advice for their commander-in-chief - not the public or members of Congress.

"Senior general officers, be they in command of a war or serving as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, are there to serve the commander-in-chief, as advisors or commanders, giving him their best military advice."Look at judges up for confirmation: do they divulge what their decisions will be? No. Similarly, a senior general gives advice to the president. He's not appointed to give advice to Congress, nor does he feel compelled to tell, in advance, what his advice and views are to anyone besides the president."

There have been a number of cases in which senior officers are asked their opinion in a public hearing -- and some give it. Most recently, Gen. James Mattis, then commander of U.S. Central Command in April was asked how many troops he believed should be left in Afghanistan after security responsibility is completely transferred to Afghans at the end of next year. His answer: 13,600. The response, from an officer who was about to retire but had been widely thought to have been under a gag order during that command, angered some in the White House and other political types. But individuals close to his thinking believe that that was his personal opinion and he didn't mind sharing it publicly since it didn't expose any state secrets or classified information. Dempsey's predecessor, Adm. Mike Mullen, famously expressed his opinion about suspending Don't Ask, Don't Tell, telling the Senate what he thought, himself. "Mr. Chairman, speaking for myself and myself only, it is my personal belief that allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly would be the right thing to do," Mullen said in February 2010. "No matter how I look at this issue, I cannot escape being troubled by the fact that we have in place a policy which forces young men and women to lie about who they are in order to defend their fellow citizens," he said. "For me personally, it comes down to integrity - theirs as individuals and ours as an institution."

It took some prodding. But Dempsey finally spoke up, too. But by presenting the options in Syria as an array that goes from bad to worse, it's not clear if he enhanced his confirmation prospects - or made them worse. 

Alex Wong/Getty Images

Report

Is the U.S. Ramping Up a Secret War in Somalia?

Islamists in East Africa were supposed to be on the run. But the raids and spy flights keep increasing.

The Obama administration earlier this year expanded its secret war in Somalia, stepping up assistance for federal and regional Somali intelligence agencies that are allied against the country's Islamist insurgency. It's a move that's not only violating the terms of an international arms embargo, according to U.N. investigators. The escalation also could be a signal that Washington's signature victory against al-Qaeda's most powerful African ally may be in danger of unraveling.

Just last year, Obama's team was touting Somalia as unqualified success. "Somalia is a good news story for the region, for the international community, but most especially for the people of Somalia itself," Johnnie Carson, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for African affairs, told reporters last October at the New York Foreign Press Center. Carson praised African forces, principally Uganda and Kenya, for driving the terror group al-Shabab out of the Somalia's main cities, Mogadishu and Kismayo. "The U.S.," he boasted, "has been a significant and major contributor to this effort." Indeed, the United States has emerged as a major force in the region, running training camps for Ugandan peacekeepers destined for battle with Somalia's militants, and hosting eight Predator drones, eight more F-15E fighter jets, and nearly 2,000 U.S. troops and military civilians at a base in neighboring Djibouti.

But despite the array of forces aligned against it, Al-Shabab is demonstrating renewed vigor. "The military strength of al-Shabaab, with an approximately 5,000-strong force, remains arguably intact in terms of operational readiness, chain of command, discipline and communications ability," according to a report by the U.N. Monitoring Group for Somalia and Eritrea. "By avoiding direct military confrontation, it has preserved the core of its fighting force and resources."

"At present, al-Shabaab remains the principal threat to peace and security in Somalia," the report adds. "The organization has claimed responsibility for hundreds of assassinations and attacks involving improvised explosive devices, ambushes, mortar shelling grenades and hit and run tactics."

Not coincidentally, perhaps, American involvement in the region is again on the rise, as well. Last year, according to the U.N. group, the United States violated the international arms embargo on Somalia by dispatching American special operations forces in Russian M-17 helicopters to northern Somalia in support of operations by the intelligence service of Puntland, a breakaway Somali province.

(The U.N. Security Council in 1992 imposed an embargo "on all deliveries of weapons and military equipment to Somalia" The embargo was eased in March, 2013, allowing for the transfer of weapons, equipment or military advisors for the development of the federal government's security forces. But the Somali government is required to inform the U.N. Security Council sanctions committee when it receives foreign military assistance.)

Two U.S. air-charter companies linked to American intelligence activities in Somalia have increased the number of clandestine flights to Mogadishu and the breakaway province of Puntland by as much as 25 percent last year.

Florida-based Prescott Support Co. and RAM Air Services, flew at least 84 civilian flights between August 2012 and March 2013. During the previous year, the two companies flew only 65 flights, "indicating an increase in United States support," the U.N. report notes.

The flights -- which have not been reported to the U.N. Security Council -- suggest a further strengthening of American cooperation with Somalia's National Intelligence Agency in Mogadishu and the Puntland Intelligence Service, which has been cooperating with U.S. counterterrorism operations for more than a decade.

Several flights last November by Prescott have been linked by the U.N. group with the construction of two buildings at the Puntland Intelligence Service compound, north of the town of Galkayo. "The construction of these two buildings during the month of November 2012 coincides with four Prescott Support Co. L-100-30 flights that landed at Galkayo airport between 3 and 9 November 2012 and constituted a load capacity of up to 80 tons of cargo," according to the report.

It's one of many ways that Western intelligence agencies -- including those of the United States, Britain and France -- have been secretly and "directly supporting intelligence services" in Mogadishu, Puntland and Somaliland, another breakaway Somali province, according to the U.N. investigators. At times, this assistance has been in violation of U.N. resolutions, claims their latest report, which runs nearly five hundred pages -- not counting several classified annexes.

Since the report was finalized, al-Shabab has been riven by internal fighting that has splintered the movement, left one of its leaders dead, and sent several others fleeing from the group's southern stronghold. But the insurgents's well-financed secret service - Amniyat - remains intact, capable of carrying out terror operations at will. And al-Shabab's leader, Ahmed Godane, remains firmly in charge of the movement's terror apparatus, according to experts on Somali politics.

The survival of al-Shabab's terror infrastructure has dealt a blow to what had appeared to be a signature achievement of the Obama administration: backing an African led effort to deny an al-Qaeda affiliated insurgency a strategic toehold in the heart of East Africa.

In August, 2011, a U.S.-backed African peacekeeping mission wrested control of the capital of Mogadishu, helping to deliver a rare respite of calm. It set the stage for the September 2012, election of a new, Western-backed President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud. Another key American ally, Kenya, last year joined forces with a Somali clan and seized control of al-Shabab's principle stronghold, Kismayo.

But those gains are being threatened by rampant corruption within the U.S. backed government's weak institutions, al-Shabab's infiltration in the "highest levels" of the Somali government, and continued attacks against targets inside Somali, including a recent deadly strike on a U.N. humanitarian aid compound in Mogadishu.

Even worse, Kenyan forces in Kismayo have clashed with clans loyal to the U.S.-backed federal government while colluding with financial backers of al-Shabab in the lucrative and illicit charcoal trade, enabling the Islamist movement to refill its war chest. "The revenue that al-Shabaab currently derives from its Kismayo shareholding, its ... exports and the taxation of ground transportation likely exceeds the estimated U.S. $25 million it generated in charcoal revenue when it controlled Kismayo," the report stated.

Over the long term, al-Shabab appears to pursuing a strategy that can best be described as biding its time. It has not carried out a major offensive against African peacekeepers in nearly two years.

Instead, it has stockpiled weapons and ammunition throughout Southern and central Somalia, launching hundreds of attacks against foreign African forces, civilians and U.N. humanitarian aid workers, and waiting for foreign forces to withdraw from the country. Earlier this year, Ethiopian forces, worn down by a campaign of guerrilla attacks, withdrew from the towns of El Bur, in the Galgadud region, and Hudur, in the Bakol region. Al-Shabab effortlessly seized control of the towns.

Ever since the 9/11 terror attacks, American military intelligence agencies have expanded their presence in East Africa, seeking initially to track al-Qaeda militants responsible for attacks against U.S. targets, but later investing in regional African efforts to confront Somali militants. While the Obama administration has strived to conceal those activities from public view in the United States, its presence in Somalia has sometimes been hard to ignore. Last year, the U.N. monitoring group complained that drone flights had clogged the skies over Somalia, posing a threat to air safety in the country. According to the report, unmanned aircraft slammed into a refugee camp, skirted a fuel dump and nearly crashed into a passenger plan over Mogadishu.

This year's report notes that international investigators have requested information from the U.S. government about "uncorroborated information" about a "handcuffed and blindfolded passenger" who boarded a plane at Galkayo airport. The United States government "has not replied to date."

Spokespeople for the United States and British missions to the United Nations declined to comment on the reports, citing a longstanding policy of not commenting publically on intelligence operations. Officials from Prescott and RAM, the airlines, did not respond to requests for comment.

Kenneth Menkhaus, a professor at Davidson College and an expert on Somalia, said that for the time being the greatest threat to al-Shabaab is emerging within the organization's own ranks, not from the U.S. counter-terrorism effort.

Internal division within the Islamist group exploded into all out fighting during the past month. In June, forces loyal to Godane killed al-Shabab cofounder Ibrahim al-Afghani, and sent two other Shabab leaders, Sheikh Mukhtar Robow, and Hassan Dahir Aweys, fleeing. The fighting, according to Menkaus, has left Shabab "weaker. But weaker than what?"

The movement, more solidly under the control of Godane, remains "a strong and dangerous force, capable of extortion, intimidation, and assassination," he added. "This fits the shift of al-Shabab from what had been a standing army, capable of controlling large swaths of territory, to a decentralized, clandestine terrorist network."

In a particularly grim twist, it is America's counterterrorism partners -- corrupt Somali institutions and Kenyan collusion with al-Shabab's financial backers -- that pose a potentially even more lethal threat to American aims. "That Shabab is stronger than people think is interesting and newsworthy," said Menkhaus. But to Menkhaus, the bigger story is the failure of America's allies to maintain a united front against al-Shabab. "Our best friends are busy fighting one another."

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