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Top U.S. General: Syrian Opposition Not Ready for the Big Leagues

Top U.S. General: Syrian Opposition Not Ready for the Big Leagues

One day after the resignation of the United Nations’ Syria envoy, America’s top military officer added to the growing pessimism about the country’s future by warning that a succession of smaller-scale conflicts were likely to erupt there even if the Assad regime was ousted from power.

Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Atlantic Council that even if the beleaguered Syrian opposition somehow ousted President Bashar al-Assad, a development that appears increasingly unlikely, the country would still be consumed with terror, chaos and starvation. "If Assad took his family and all of his cronies and departed Syria today, how does that country … articulate itself?" he asked.

Dempsey noted that the Syrian opposition maintains no governance structure to provide goods, services and security; no force capable of holding ground to administer aid and wage attacks against the regime; and no counterterrorism capability to root out al Qaeda-affiliated groups in the country. "And we’re not on a path currently to provide that," he said.

Dempsey’s dour assessment of the military situation on the ground compounded the already bleak outlook offered by United Nations and Arab League peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi on Tuesday as he handed in his resignation. "It’s very sad that I leave this position and leave Syria behind in such a bad state," Brahimi said at a press conference in New York. He blamed the collapse of the peace effort on the warring parties, especially the Syrian regime. He also called out the divided Security Council and the nations abetting combatants on both sides, such as Iran, Russia, the United States and Gulf countries.

"Everybody who has responsibility and an influence in the situation has to remember that the question is how many more dead? How much more destruction is there going to be before Syria becomes again the Syria we have known," Brahimi said.

To date, the conflict has cost the lives of more than 150,000 people and forced nine million people from their homes. Secretary of State John Kerry said late Tuesday that "Mr. Brahimi did not fail." Instead, Kerry said that Assad, "who will not negotiate," is to blame. On Wednesday, Kerry embarks on a trip to the Middle East with a focus on the conflict in Syria. He will meet with the foreign ministers of the core nations supporting the Syrian opposition, including Britain, France, Egypt, Germany, Italy, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates.

The Gulf countries have pressed the United States to provide more powerful weaponry to the opposition, including shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles capable of shooting down Assad’s warplanes and helicopters. The administration has been reluctant to hand over these weapons due to the multiplying number of Islamic extremist groups in the country. But with the rebels losing ground to Assad, including the key city of Homs, the White House is looking into ways of outfitting the missile launchers with fingerprint scanners and GPS systems designed to ensure the militants couldn’t use the weapons against civilian aircraft. In recent weeks, the administration has launched a "pilot program" that gives rebels anti-tank missiles, called TOWs, designed to help the rebels pulverize reinforced bunkers and tanks.

During Wednesday’s panel, the moderator pointed out that rebels say they need anti-aircraft weaponry in order to hold territory and organize counteroffensives. "That’s their argument," Dempsey acknowledged. But he suggested that such tools would only provide short-term solutions. He described the future of Syria as a "succession of conflicts."

"You have the conflict that currently exists," he said. "Then there’ll be the second conflict, which is a kind of internal conflict. And then there’ll be a third conflict against the terrorist organizations." He stressed that any resolution of the civil war would require broad international support. "This issue is not just Syria. It’s Beirut to Damascus to Baghdad."