SEOUL — The top U.S. military officer took time Tuesday from an official visit aimed at allaying regional concerns about the U.S. commitment to Asia in order to discuss ideas Pentagon officials are mulling for assisting armed forces in Middle Eastern countries such as Lebanon and Jordan, and training moderate opposition forces in Syria.
Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, noted Arab world hot spots where violence between Sunni and Shiite Muslims has been escalating, such as Lebanon and Iraq, and countries such as Jordan and Turkey, which have taken occasional fire from Syria’s civil war while bearing the brunt of a humanitarian crisis by housing and caring for the conflict’s refugees. Instability abounds in the wake of the Arab Spring protests, and the al Qaeda terrorist network has a resurgent presence in the region.
“We’re looking, militarily now — and I’m speaking only as the representative of the United States armed forces — but we’re looking at how we can assist the Lebanese armed forces, the Jordanians in particular, our NATO allies in Turkey, and even the Iraqis,” Gen. Dempsey said Tuesday during a media roundtable.
“We’re trying to apply economic factors, assistance of other kinds … so that, as this thing continues to develop, we will have some influence in a positive way in the outcome,” Gen. Dempsey said of crises in the Middle East. “It is a conflict that stretches from Beirut to Damascus to Baghdad.”
In addition, the general said, the Pentagon is considering working with Arab and European allies to train moderate Syrian military and police forces. U.S. troops are helping transport weapons to rebels locked in a 2½-year-old civil war against President Bashar Assad’s regime.
“We’ve got incredible experience at building partners and building military and police formations. So we’ve been in discussions about whether we can find a way to collaborate on that issue — the issue of developing a moderate opposition, in particular to stabilize some of the humanitarian issues in northern Jordan and southern Turkey,” he said.
Gen. Dempsey made the comments, in response to a reporter’s question during a weeklong trip with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to South Korea that was designed to reassure regional allies that the Obama administration’s so-called pivot to Asia is still a top priority despite budget woes at the Pentagon and ongoing strife in the Middle East.
The Asia Pacific — which includes North and South Korea, Japan, China, Taiwan the Philippines and Australia — is ripe for instability on a large scale because of the region’s growing populations, economies and militaries amid various territorial disputes, historical grievances and political turmoil.
Two key regional issues are China’s expansive maritime claims and North Korea’s provocations against the South and the U.S.
South Korea’s military will need to improve its missile defense and cybersecurity capabilities to defend against the North’s threats, Army Gen. James D. Thurman, commander of U.S. forces in Korea, said Tuesday. He is to retire Wednesday and be succeeded by Army Lt. Gen. Curtis M. Scaparrotti, who will lead the 28,500 U.S. troops stationed in the country.
South Korea is scheduled to take over wartime control of its own forces, which would defend the country in the event of an attack by North Korea, by the end of 2015. Mr. Hagel said this week that U.S. and South Korean officials are discussing an extension of the 2015 deadline, but no decision is expected soon.
Gen. Dempsey said the Pentagon will fulfill its commitment to South Korea, as well as find a way to pay for a response to Syria.
“Where our greatest national interests lie, we will find a way to find the resources to make the kind of commitments we need to make,” he told reporters Monday.
Training moderate Syrian police and military forces would be a “valid concept to be thinking about [especially after] the chemical weapons issue is reconciled” and Mr. Assad refuses to seek a political settlement to end the civil war, the Joint Chiefs chairman said Tuesday, referring to U.N.-led efforts to catalog, collect and destroy Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal. The training idea has not risen to the point of being a “plan,” he added.
Gen. Dempsey has warned of the costs and risks of committing U.S. forces to a boots-on-the-ground intervention in Syria. But in an Aug. 19 letter to Rep. Eliot L. Engel, New York Democrat, he said that increased efforts to develop a moderate opposition represents the best framework for an effective strategy, though he did not specify how.