Dempsey replied with brevity, clarity and sobriety. In a letter to Levin's Senate Armed Services Committee, the general offered his "independent judgment" of military operations that (we learn near the end of his analysis) might further "the narrow military objective of helping the opposition and placing more pressure" on the Assad dictatorship.
Though "narrow" and "helping" appear on the last page, they guide Dempsey's assessments. So does his Senate-issued marching order: unclassified. His letter doesn't hide beneath a Top Secret coversheet.
After noting that the U.S. already provides Syrian refugees with humanitarian assistance, Dempsey analyzes several military operations designed to assist Syrian rebel forces in their fight against Bashar al-Assad's heinous dictatorship. Yes, assist, as in narrow and helping.
Option One -- Train, Advise and Assist the Opposition -- has U.S. advisers training Syrian rebels in tasks such as tactical planning and employing weapons. Advisers might provide intelligence and logistics help. Deploying several thousand advisers might cost $500 million a year, with a secure rear area (think Turkey and Jordan). The risks include terror attacks on advisers. We might "inadvertently" train rebels who commit war crimes.
Option Two -- Conduct Limited Standoff Strikes -- entails attacking "high value" regime targets with bombs, missiles and possibly artillery munitions. It requires several hundred aircraft and employs missile-firing naval vessels. This is war, of course. "Depending on duration," Dempsey writes, costs run "in the billions." Given time, he thinks this option will physically weaken the regime by destroying its military and morally sap it by increasing "regime desertions." U.S. forces could face retaliatory attacks, and our attacks could kill civilians.
Option Three -- Establish a No-Fly Zone Over Syria -- involves preventing the regime from using its aircraft to attack rebels and transport supplies. It requires substantial ground forces to protect air bases and costs over $1 billion a month. We could lose aircraft, and ground forces could face attack. Assad's forces could still level rebel neighborhoods with tube and rocket artillery. They already do.
Option Four -- Establish Buffer Zones -- essentially commits U.S. forces to helping protect rebel areas within Syria. This likely means ground troops in Syria. The Turkish government touted this option early on, and Dempsey identifies the Syria-Turkey border area as a likely place to carve out a buffer enclave. U.S.-defended buffer zones could become bases for extremists (terrorists -- remember, this is an Obama administration document). Dempsey provides no cost estimate here, but it would run several billion a month.
Option Five is Control Chemical Weapons, in which we invade to deny the regime and terrorists weapons of mass destruction. We bomb Assad's chemical stockpiles, and then ground troops secure "critical sites." It costs "well over" a billion a month.
Then we encounter narrow and helping, which is to say if Assad topples, Syrian rebels will do the toppling, not us.
Dempsey, however, knows Murphy's Law -- if it can go wrong, it will -- rules warfare. Hence this prudent warning: "Once we take action, we should be prepared for what comes next. Deeper involvement is hard to avoid."
Dempsey, however, avoided the word "Iran." Syrians are fighting a civil war, but their civil war is NATO's shadow war with Iran. That is the geopolitical context. Iranian arms and money keep the Assad regime alive; Iran's Hezbollah proxy provides it with fanatic combat soldiers.
If Dempsey's limited options merely keep Syria's mixed bag of rebels in the war, the most likely outcome is this: Syria's agonizing stalemate continues. More civilians die, by the tens of thousands, and millions more suffer. Do "Right to Protect" criticisms merely apply to Republican presidents?
If Option Two through Four include the interdiction and elimination of Iranian-supplied war material -- and perhaps Russian, as well -- they could end the stalemate, in the rebels favor. However, they also risk escalation to a regional war. Perhaps this extended assessment hides in a classified letter. If it does, it shouldn't.