President Obama’s decision to delay his planned strike against Syria to seek congressional authorization could make a bombing campaign more difficult and has allowed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to prepare for an attack, Joint Chiefs chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey testified Tuesday.
When announcing his two decisions on August 31—one to use military force against Syria and another to seek a formal authorization for the use of force from Congress—Obama said that Dempsey had assured him the attacks would still be effective even if delayed until after September 9, when Congress returns from recess.
“The chairman of the Joint Chiefs has informed me that we are prepared to strike whenever we choose. Moreover, the chairman has indicated to me that our capacity to execute this mission is not time sensitive; it will be effective tomorrow, or next week, or one month from now. And I'm prepared to give that order," Obama said.
Meanwhile, reports from the region state that Assad has been hiding weapons and moving troops to civilian efforts in advance of a potential U.S. strike.
Dempsey, under tough questioning Tuesday from Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) at a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, clarified that he never meant to imply that the strikes would be unaffected by the delay. In fact, he noted that the Assad regime has been taking measures to blunt the effectiveness of any U.S. strikes even before the delay was announced.
“There is evidence that the regime is reacting not only to the delay, but they were reacting before that to the leak of military planning,” Dempsey said. He added that what he actually told Obama was, “The military resources in place can remain in place and when you ask us to strike, we will make the strikes effective.”
Secretary of State John Kerry initially testified that the delay was a net benefit for the U.S.
“We are not losing anything by waiting, and in fact, in my opinion, there are advantages,” Kerry said, arguing that the delay allows more time for the administration to build domestic and international support for a strike.
Sen. John McCain disagreed at the hearing, saying there was no doubt that giving the Assad regime advance warning about the strikes would allow the Syrian government to prepare.
“When you tell the enemy you are going to attack, they are obviously going to disperse and make it harder,” said McCain. “It’s ridiculous to think it’s not wise from a pure military standpoint to warn the enemy that you are going to attack.”
Kerry blamed Assad's advance awareness of a potential attack on the media, which published details of the strike plans before Obama had formally decided on any option.
“I don’t disagree with you about the warning. There were leaks, which were the bane of everybody’s existence ... That’s what began the process of Assad moving the weapons,” Kerry said.
McCain and Dempsey have been at odds over Syria for months, since McCain threatened to hold up Dempsey’s confirmation for a second term as chairman this summer. Last month, McCain accused Dempsey of signaling to Assad that America would not respond to a use of chemical weapons, precipitating the current crisis.
“I really don’t pay a lot of attention to General Dempsey anymore,” McCain told The Daily Beast Monday. “With me he just doesn’t have any credibility. That’s all.”