WASHINGTON, Sept. 6, 2013 – The Defense Department leadership is focused on what President Barack Obama has defined as the objective of a proposed military operation in Syria: ending Bashar Assad’s use of chemical weapons, Pentagon Press Secretary George Little said here today.
Little spoke with reporters after two days of Senate and House foreign affairs committee hearings and testimony before both panels by Secretary of State John F. Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Martin E Dempsey.
Obama favors limited military action against Syria, but wants Congress to decide if the nation will stand behind it. That process is underway.
“We’re focused right now on what the president and others have said about what this military operation — if it takes place — would try to achieve,” Little told the reporters. “And that is a clear objective of stopping the Assad regime using chemical weapons [and] deterring and degrading the ability of this regime to murder innocent Syrian men, women and children.”
The operation would be of limited scope and duration, and there would be no boots — of American or allied troops — on the ground, he added, describing the scope of the proposed operation.
But more broadly in Syria, others have been working on a track beyond the military part of the equation, Little said.
“The State Department, in particular, has been heavily involved in diplomatic efforts with the Syrian opposition to try to move toward an ultimate political solution in Syria that’s driven by the Syrians,” he explained. “That’s what we want at the end of the day. That’s what the Syrians want.”
In terms of getting help with Syria from the international community, Little said the department believes some countries will provide support if the United States takes military action.
“But international participation does not need to be vast in order for us to succeed,” he added.
Little was unable to offer details on the cost of an incomplete and so far unapproved Syrian military operation, but he did respond to questions about continuing budget constraints in the upcoming fiscal year.
“We have said that this is in the national security interests of the United States. And if this operation goes forward, if we’re asked by the president to conduct a military mission, we will conduct it,” the press secretary said.
“When it comes to sequestration and budget uncertainty,” he added, “when this country decides to come together and take military action for a just cause that’s rooted in the legitimacy of a very strong international norm, then we’ll find a way to fund it.”
During Hagel’s recent four-country trip to Asia, during which he engaged in bilateral meetings with several counterparts from the region, including South Korea, Little said the defense secretary learned about North Korean stockpiles of chemical weapons, underscoring this week’s discussions about Syria’s use of chemical weapons on its own citizens.
“If we sit idly by and allow the Syrian regime to perpetrate atrocities the likes of which we’ve seen recently, then what signal does that send to countries like North Korea?” Little said.
If the Syrians are allowed to get away with it, then perhaps that sends a signal that others might be able to get away with it, the press secretary added — not just North Korea, but Iran, Hezbollah and other rogue actors in the international community.
“This is very serious business,” Little said. “And it is very important not just for the United States, but for other countries, to step up and say this international norm is worth defending.”
In response to a question about whether the long U.S. discussion about such a military strike would give the Syrian army an advantage during such an attack, Little said the United States is the strongest military power in the world and one of the most flexible and adaptable, with access to information that will enable it to take effective action at the appropriate time, if called upon.
“No one in the Syrian regime should take solace from the deliberative process that we’re undertaking right now with the United States Congress,” he observed.
Little said there will be time to adjust, given conditions on the ground and given what the Syrian regime may or may not do in terms of moving equipment.
“So the Syrian regime does not get a strategic or a tactical advantage from the time we, if called upon, will carry out a military mission effectively,” he added, “and we will meet our objective of deterring and degrading their chemical weapons use.”