WASHINGTON — The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday that he has “a wide range of military options” to offer to President Obama as the latest Syria deal brokered by Secretary of State John Kerry has quickly fallen apart.
Kerry argued at the UN Security on Wednesday that after the ceasefire Russia, a strong ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, went into effect, “guess what, it worked.” But “all of that dissipated.”
“If we allow spoilers to choose the path for us – the path of escalation – if we decide not to do what it takes to make this work, this cessation of hostilities, then make no mistake, my friends, the next time we convene here, we’re going to be facing a Middle East with even more refugees, with more dead, with more displaced, with more extremists, and more suffering on an even greater scale,” Kerry said. “That is a certainty.”
His recommendations? More negotiations for another ceasefire.
Gen. Joseph Dunford was asked by Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) at the Armed Services hearing if the cessation of hostilities agreement was “being effectively implemented on the ground in Syria.”
“That would not appear to be the case over the last 48 hours, chairman,” Dunford replied.
“This is not the first time we’ve had one of these agreements. In fact, it’s beginning to fit the definition of insanity of doing this same thing over and over again. Suppose this fails again, General Dunford, what do we do then?” McCain asked the Joint Chiefs chairman. “Try another cease fire? What do we do then? We just saw, as you know, evidence that a chemical weapon and we knew that a chemical weapons factory was functioning in Raqqa.”
“What’s plan B? Is there a plan B here or do we just keep going back to the five-star hotels in Geneva and have meetings with our count — with [Russian Foreign Minister Sergei] Lavrov and come out with various declarations? What do we do if this one fails?”
Dunford said there are “a wide range of military options that we would provide to the president should our policy change” in the wake of the latest ceasefire violations.
At this point, he said, “our military strategy is focused on the counter-ISIL campaign.”
“In my judgment, we are succeeding in that campaign,” the general added.
“So as far as you’re concerned, we ignore the 400,000 dead and the 6 million refugees, that’s caused by Bashar al-Assad. Do you believe right now it’s very likely that Bashar al-Assad will leave power?” McCain continued.
“I can’t really judge that, right now. It doesn’t appear that he will in the near term, chairman,” Dunford responded.
Questioned about Kerry’s proposal to set up an intelligence-sharing operation in Syria with the Russians,” Dunford said he did “not believe it would be a good idea to share intelligence with the Russians.”
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) asked the Joint Chiefs chairman if there was “any doubt” that Russia attacked a UN convoy delivering badly needed humanitarian aid to Aleppo. The Red Cross said at least 20 people were killed in the strikes.
Russia and Assad’s government have denied bombing the convoy. Dunford said he didn’t have all the facts, but could narrow it down to one of those as the culprit.
“What we know are two Russian aircraft who were in that area at the time. My judgment would be that they did. There were also some other aircraft in the area that belonged to the regime at or about the same time. So I can’t conclusively say that it was the Russians. But it was either Russians or the regime,” the general said.
“There is no doubt in my mind that the Russians are responsible. I just don’t know whose aircraft actually dropped the bomb.”
Blumenthal called it a “war crime.” Dunford called it “an unacceptable atrocity.”
Pressed on the potential military options of the United States, Dunford said that was a topic to discuss with senators in closed session.
“I’d prefer to talk to you in private about military options that might be being discussed as future options the president may have,” he said. “I think right now managing the Russian problem is largely a political, diplomatic problem and that’s what Secretary Kerry and the president are dealing with.”
Defense Secretary Ashton Carter told the committee that the goal of U.S. policy in Syria is still “to end the Syrian war — civil war.”
“It has been that for a long time. And that means an end to the violence there… also a political transition from Assad to a government that includes moderate opposition and that can run the country,” Carter said. “…What Secretary Kerry’s trying to do and — and again, as we sit here today, it’s very problematic. But what he’s trying to do, is exactly what you’re calling attention to, namely, to end the humanitarian disaster occasioned by the civil war in Syria and to appropriate a political transition.”