It's not just Republicans who are now openly wondering whether America's top general is being too timid on Syria. In a letter obtained by The Cable, Democratic Rep. Eliot Engel, the ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, calls into question Gen. Martin Dempsey's gloomy analysis of U.S. military options in Syria. Specifically, the leading congressman asks whether the Pentagon overlooked an option to fire a limited number of cruise missiles in order to wreck Assad's air force.
"While I do not profess to be a military expert, it is clear that this analysis does not fully reflect an even more limited option that some have advocated, which would involve cruise missiles or other stand-off weapon strikes," Engel writes in a letter addressed to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The letter by Engel, a New York Democrat, adds a bipartisan gloss to the mounting frustration in Congress over the Pentagon's proposed options in Syria.
All last week, Dempsey faced withering criticism from Sen. John McCain for a letter he sent to the Arizona Republican and Sen. Carl Levin detailing the military options in Syria -- options that McCain said exaggerated the cost of intervention in Syria in both treasure and blood. "In my many years, I have seen a lot of military commanders overstate what is needed to conduct military action for one reason or another. But rarely have I seen an effort as disingenuous and exaggerated as what General Dempsey proposed," McCain said.
Under scrutiny is Dempsey's contention that conducting limited stand-off strikes in Syria would require "hundreds of aircraft, ships, submarines, and other enabers" at a cost in the "billions."
"I respectfully request that you provide me with additional information regarding the force requirements and estimated costs associated with a more limited stand-off strike option focused on degrading regime-controlled air bases," Engel writes.
Unlike McCain, Engel's delicately-worded letter did not question Dempsey's motivations for neglecting to outline a more limited intervention against Bashar al-Assad's forces. But a growing number of aides in the House and Senate are beginning to ask whether the Pentagon is justifying its institutional resistance to intervening in Syria with inflated cost assessments.
"I question whether Dempsey's letter is just a smokescreen to prevent a more meaningful U.S. response in Syria," said a senior congressional staffer who follows Syria policy closely. "You've got to wonder why the Joint Chiefs failed to detail the costs of having a few dozen Tomahawks take out Syrian airfields and hangars. It's a fairly obvious option to neglect to mention. If the opportunity costs to degrade the Syrian military are so high, you've got to wonder what the point is of even deploying the Sixth Fleet to the eastern Mediterranean?"
Dempsey's office did not respond to a request for comment, but others have defended the Defense Department's reluctance. "From my perspective, the hesitancy from the Pentagon is rooted in operational reality," Shawn Brimley, director of studies at the Center for a New American Security, told The Cable in June when chatter of Pentagon misgivings first surfaced. "The question needs to be: Are we willing to go to war in Syria? You can't be halfway pregnant. As soon as we step in with military force, we own it. If you're the president, are you willing to enter into a third war in the greater Middle East at this point in our history?"
Others say that limited strikes on Syria are not only possible -- they could be fairly inexpensive, too. "I am not taking a position on whether we ‘should' degrade the Syrian Air Force," said the Institute for the Study of War's Chris Harmer, in an e-mail to The Cable, "I am simply saying that if we decide to degrade the SAF, it could be done quickly, easily, with no risk whatsoever to American personnel, and a relatively minor cost."
In Washington policy circles, Harmer has been raising eyebrows with a new report that purports to lay out a low-cost strategy to hamstring Assad's air force (you can see the 30-page slideshow here). "Although destroying the SAF and its Integrated Air Defense System in its entirety would require a major military operation, a series of relatively small strikes, using Precision Guided Munitions launched from outside the Weapon Engagement Zone of the Syrian IADS, would also significantly degrade the SAF and its infrastructure," reads the analysis. Rather than requiring hundreds of aircraft and vessels as Dempsey outlined, Harmer's strike calls for three U.S. Navy surface combatant vessels, and 24 total U.S. Navy and U.S. Air Force aircraft launching a barrage of Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles and Joint Air to Surface Standoff Missiles. The detailed report is complete with maps of ammo bunkers and other strategic targets.
From the Syrian rebel perspective, any relief they can get from Assad's strafing fighter jets is welcome, which is why lawmakers are increasingly looking to cheaper fixes to a conflict the American public is deeply skeptical of.
"Without a fuller discussion of the range of military options on Syria, neither Congress, the executive branch, nor the American people can adequately consider how best to respond to the crisis," Engel told The Cable, elaborating on the concerns in his letter. "More specifically, it might be possible to ground Assad's air force, slow the transport of weapons to the regime, and halt the random terror caused when the bombs rain down on Syrian cities -- without committing the hundreds of planes and billions of dollars described in General Dempsey's letter. But to determine this, the American people need a clear and forthright menu of policies."