Imposing a no-fly zone over Syria would cost as much as $1 billion a month and put U.S. aircraft at risk of being shot down without necessarily toppling Bashar al-Assad’s regime, the U.S. military’s top officer said.
Thousands of U.S. troops would be required on the ground if the U.S. wanted to establish buffer zones to protect targeted geographic areas or to control the proliferation of chemical weapons, Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in a letter to the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee that was released yesterday.
Underscoring his reluctance to take military action in Syria, Dempsey said U.S. intervention “could inadvertently empower extremists or unleash the very chemical weapons we seek to control,” without the emergence of a “viable opposition.”
Dempsey’s letter is the strongest public statement by a Pentagon leader setting out the dangers of direct involvement in Syria. The war has claimed more than 93,000 lives by United Nations estimates while threatening to destabilize neighboring Jordan and Lebanon and risking a broader regional conflict between Sunnis and Shiites.
Asked today whether Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel agrees with Dempsey’s assessment on Syria, Pentagon spokesman George Little told reporters today that Hagel is “clear-eyed about the cost of intervention.”
Members of the Senate Armed Services panel who favor more aggressive military action pressed Dempsey at a hearing last week to disclose what advice he’s giving to President Barack Obama. Dempsey said it would be “inappropriate for me to try to influence the decision” by making public his recommendations to the president when they’re under consideration.
While Obama administration officials have said they are weighing all options short of putting U.S. troops on the ground in Syria, the U.S. has limited its support for rebel forces to non-lethal aid and a promise of small arms.
Some lawmakers have expressed doubts about the limited steps the Obama administration is taking in Syria, which stop short of any no-fly zone or direct military action.
“The House Intelligence Committee has very strong concerns about the strength of the administration’s plans in Syria and its chances for success,” said Representative Mike Rogers, the panel’s chairman and a Michigan Republican, said in a statement yesterday.
Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican, said at last week’s hearing that he would block Dempsey’s nomination for a second term heading the Joint Chiefs unless the general revealed his advice to Obama. McCain has led calls in Congress to arm the rebels and establish a no-fly zone to protect the opposition from Assad’s air power.
“We wouldn’t be starting a war,” McCain said. “We would be trying to stop a massacre that’s going on.”
Senator Carl Levin, the Michigan Democrat who’s chairman of the committee, asked Dempsey to write the letter outlining options in an effort to resolve the committee’s conflict with the general.
“It is not enough to simply alter the balance of military power without careful consideration of what is necessary in order to preserve a functioning state,” Dempsey said in the letter, dated July 19. “We must anticipate and be prepared for the unintended consequences of our action.”
Dempsey said that training and advising the Syrian opposition would cost $500 million a year, while the cost of conducting stand-off strikes against Assad’s military “would be in the billions.”
Dempsey’s comments reflect the views of commanders, who have been critical of proposals to intervene in Syria.
Retired Marine Corps General James Mattis, who was commander of U.S. Central Command from August 2010 until March, said a no-fly zone would have little effect in reducing civilian causalities because most deaths are from regime artillery, machine guns and sniper fire, not air strikes.
A no-fly zone also would be “very expensive,” Mattis said July 20 at a security conference in Aspen, Colorado. “It will have tankers. It will have fighter planes up constantly. It will drain the Treasury. It will take our hard-pressed military into one more fray. It’s going to require helicopters and special forces to recover the pilots who get shot down.”
“Can we do it? Absolutely,” he said. “And the killing will go on on the ground because they are not using aircraft to do most of the killing.”
Mattis said U.S. intervention risked drawing America into another Mideast war.
“If the Americans take ownership of this, it is going to be a full-throated, very, very serious war,” he said at the Aspen Security Forum. “And anyone who said this is going to be easy, that we can do a no-fly zone and it will be cheap, I would discount that at the outset.”
Mattis also raised the perils of helping arm the opposition forces, even assuming steps are taken to prevent the weapons from falling into the hands of Islamist radicals allied with al-Qaeda.
“We could just increase the savagery if we don’t do it right,” he said.
After early successes by the opposition, Assad’s regime has made military advances with the help of weapons, training and fighters from Iran and its ally, Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite Muslim group that the U.S. and Israel regard as a terrorist organization. The European Union yesterday labeled Hezbollah’s military wing as terrorists.