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David Petraeus testifies in Washington Tuesday. (Photo: Associated Press)

David Petraeus testifies in Washington Tuesday. (Photo: Associated Press)

War Hawk Petraeus Comes Out Of Retirement to Recommend Pouring Fuel on Syria's Fire

Observers say former general's prescription would require tens of thousands of troops and lead to full-scale war

Sarah Lazare

As the Obama administration's policies of regime change and armed intervention in Syria flounder, the retired general who oversaw the failed wars in Iraq and Afghanistan added his voice to the hawkish chorus calling for even more aggressive bombing and military action as he testified before lawmakers on Tuesday.

Speaking to the Senate Armed Services Committee, David Petraeus called for the U.S. and allies to use their air forces to create a "safe haven" in Syria for "moderate" rebels. Going further, he urged the U.S. to use military force to stop the air-launching of barrel bombs by the Assad regime, while simultaneously increasing attacks on ISIS.

"It is frequently said that there is no military solution to Syria or the other conflicts roiling the Middle East," said Petraeus. "This may be true, but it is also misleading. For, in every case, if there is to be any hope of a political settlement, a certain military and security context is required, and that context will not materialize on its own. We and our partners need to facilitate it—and over the past four years, we have not done so."

But expert critics note that the "military context" that Petraeus advocates for amounts to a dramatic and long-term escalation.

The so-called safe zones would require no-fly zones, and "there’s never been a no-fly zone in modern history that hasn’t led to an actual war, given it usually requires destroying the air force of the country it’s set up in," Trevor Timm pointed out in the Guardian Wednesday.

"Even if we were to avoid going to active war against Assad’s forces (against all odds), everyone seems to ignore the fact that a 'no-fly zone' will reportedly require 70,000 US troops. And that number is not an exaggeration—it comes from the Joint Chiefs of Staff and has been cited in the past as the number needed to secure the entire country’s skies," Timm continued.

"This is not the first time Petraeus has urged significant escalation of failing U.S. wars," noted Phyllis Bennis, senior fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, in an interview with Common Dreams. "In this case, what he's proposing amounts to full U.S. engagement by air and very likely with ground troops inside Syria in a direct campaign of military regime change."

And indeed, Petraeus's narrative was challenged by protesters with the anti-war organization CODEPINK, who disrupted his testimony holding signs which declared "No endless war."

Petraeus is not alone in calling for escalation. From hawkish voices in the U.S. to the elected leaders of Australia, France, and the United Kingdom, many are using the refugee crisis to push military escalation—towards Assad and ISIS. In a statement made earlier this week, former Secretary of State and 2016 presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton rebuked Obama for not going further in military efforts opposing ISIS and Assad.

The push comes amid growing signs that U.S. military intervention is failing.

U.S. Central Command has been scandalized by a series of reports alleging it has deceived the public by falsely claiming that U.S. air strikes against ISIS are more effective than they actually are. In response, the Pentagon launched an investigation last month.

Despite the failure of the U.S. strategy of training and funding "moderate" rebels, the Obama administration has reportedly sent another 70 graduates of a training program to operate as "New Syrian Forces." In absence of a congressional debate, meanwhile, U.S. armed forces are deployed within Syria, and in larger numbers in neighboring Iraq.

Meanwhile, statements from Secretary of State John Kerry last week appeared to dial back rhetoric demanding immediate regime change in Syria. Discussing the possibility of joint talks, brokered by the Russian government, that would include Assad, Kerry said, "We’re prepared to negotiate." The questions that remain, he added, were: "Is Assad prepared to negotiate? Really negotiate? Is Russia prepared to bring him to the table and actually find the solution to this violence?" 

However, Kerry's comments alone left it unclear if the Obama administration has actually dropped its regime change stance and recognizes that its military strategy has failed—or simply denotes the ongoing incoherence of the president's Syria policy.

According to Bennis, if more hawkish forces get their way, the outcome could be even more catastrophic. "There are horrific weapons being used on all sides in this war," she said. "Calling for one side to escalate to stop the use of horrific weapons on other side guarantees nothing but more civilian casualties."

As Timm concluded, "What is happening in Syria is an absolute tragedy, and one can only hope that the western powers will welcome refugees with open arms, and that a potential negotiated settlement is still somehow possible to at least stop the carnage on one side of the war. But while there are proposals everywhere for more war, no one has explained how adding more military destruction to the equation would actually help."

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