Odierno: Syria rebels will prevail, but sequester makes U.S. intervention risky

The U.S. Army’s top officer said that force readiness is "degrading significantly" enough that if President Barack Obama decides to put boots on the ground in Syria, soldiers may not be fully prepared for the job if they don’t move out by the end of this summer. Gen. Ray Odierno, Army chief of staff, said ...

Photo by MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images
Photo by MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images
Photo by MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images

The U.S. Army's top officer said that force readiness is "degrading significantly" enough that if President Barack Obama decides to put boots on the ground in Syria, soldiers may not be fully prepared for the job if they don't move out by the end of this summer.

Gen. Ray Odierno, Army chief of staff, said he believes the Free Syrian Army will prevail because the rebels have been able to win and hold territory.

"I kind of believe its not a matter of if, it's a matter of when," Odierno said of the FSA's chances to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The U.S. Army’s top officer said that force readiness is "degrading significantly" enough that if President Barack Obama decides to put boots on the ground in Syria, soldiers may not be fully prepared for the job if they don’t move out by the end of this summer.

Gen. Ray Odierno, Army chief of staff, said he believes the Free Syrian Army will prevail because the rebels have been able to win and hold territory.

"I kind of believe its not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when," Odierno said of the FSA’s chances to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

From a military perspective, Odierno did not offer advice to the rebels, which the U.S. support officially and with non-lethal aid, but said he was encouraged by what they’ve been able to accomplish against Syria’s forces.

"I think from what I’ve seen is they have made some significant gains. I think they are controlling the territory. It makes you think that, you know, it’s going to be difficult for the regime over time to survive," Odierno said, at a Defense Writers Group briefing with reporters in Washington, on Tuesday.

Odierno cautioned, however, that training cutbacks due to the sequester mean that, within months, the Army will be less prepared for a ground intervention.

"Its a matter of us having the dollars to make sure they are ready and trained to meet such a contingency in Syria."

"Readiness is OK right now, but it’s degrading significantly because our training is reducing. So, the next three, four months, we probably have the capability to do it," he said, of a Syrian incursion. "Next year, it becomes a little bit more risky."

"If you ask me today, we have forces that can go. I think it will change over time because the longer we go cancelling training and reducing our training, the readiness levels go down."

When readiness falls, he warned, risk inevitably goes up.

"What is the risk? The risk is lives."

Odeirno said that while Pentagon continues to present President Obama options for Syria, including acting unilaterally or in an international coalition, he’s more concerned about the future facing the region.

"What I worry about is the next day. So, when it happens, what happens the day after?" he said. "To me, that’s important, what happens to Syria."

"Nothing happens independently in the Middle East. What’s the impact on Israel? What’s the impact on Lebanon? What’s the impact on Jordan," he said, mentioning Iraq, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Iran, as well.

"If we don’t get this right, what happens the day after … could change the whole face of the Middle East, or it could go smoothly," he speculated. "How do we from an international coalition try to make this happen in such a way where we don’t create incredible instability once Syria falls. That’s what I worry about."

Add the use of chemical and biological weapons to his list of concerns.

"There’s lots to worry about," Odierno said. "For me, it gets very, very messy."

There’s one more layer to the Syria mess that complicates any outcome, said the Army chief: terrorists in the rebel ranks. 

"With the rebels, we do know there’s some terrorists in there," Odierno said. "Obviously, we don’t want them to be involved in the outcome, we don’t want them to gain power because of the impact they could have on the rest of the region — regionally and then potentially internationally."

Kevin Baron is a national security reporter for Foreign Policy, covering defense and military issues in Washington. He is also vice president of the Pentagon Press Association. Baron previously was a national security staff writer for National Journal, covering the "business of war." Prior to that, Baron worked in the resident daily Pentagon press corps as a reporter/photographer for Stars and Stripes. For three years with Stripes, Baron covered the building and traveled overseas extensively with the secretary of defense and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, covering official visits to Afghanistan and Iraq, the Middle East and Europe, China, Japan and South Korea, in more than a dozen countries. From 2004 to 2009, Baron was the Boston Globe Washington bureau's investigative projects reporter, covering defense, international affairs, lobbying and other issues. Before that, he muckraked at the Center for Public Integrity. Baron has reported on assignment from Asia, Africa, Australia, Europe, the Middle East and the South Pacific. He was won two Polk Awards, among other honors. He has a B.A. in international studies from the University of Richmond and M.A. in media and public affairs from George Washington University. Originally from Orlando, Fla., Baron has lived in the Washington area since 1998 and currently resides in Northern Virginia with his wife, three sons, and the family dog, The Edge. Twitter: @FPBaron

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