Lubold: Is intervening in Syria worth a billion dollars per month?

Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, appears before the Senate Armed Services Committee for a hearing on Capitol Hill. (July 18, 2013) Photo Credit: AP

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WASHINGTON - Using lethal force to strike high-value targets inside Syria would require hundreds of U.S. aircraft, ships and submarines, while establishing a no-fly zone would cost as much as a billion dollars per month over the course of a year, according to a new analysis of military options there by the nation's top military officer. Another option, in which the U.S. attempts to control Syria's chemical weapons stock, would first require thousands of special operations forces and other ground forces, wrote Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey. Oh, and well over a billion dollars per month.

Under pressure to publicly provide his views on military intervention in Syria, Dempsey told Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin this week what most people already knew: there are few good options. But for the first time, Dempsey provided an analysis of each option and its cost, providing new fodder for thinking about a conflict that has continued for more than two years, killed nearly 100,000 people and displaced hundreds of thousands more.

Dempsey outlined five options, including training, advising and assisting the opposition; conducting limited stand-off strikes; establishing a no-fly zone; creating a buffer zone to protect certain areas inside Syria; and finally, controlling Syria's chemical weapons. Any of those options would likely "further the narrow military objective of helping the opposition and placing more pressure on the regime," Dempsey wrote. But any or all of them could slip the U.S. into another new war.

"We have learned from the past 10 years, however, that 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 wrote Levin, D-Mich., in the memo, a copy of which was released publicly late Monday. "We must anticipate and be prepared for the unintended consequences of our action."

As requested after a heated exchange in the Senate last week over U.S. policy in Syria, Dempsey dutifully gave the pros and cons for each option. But in what amounts to the most candid analysis of the Pentagon's thinking on Syria to date, Dempsey couched each as highly risky. Establishing a no-fly zone, for example, comes with inherent risk: "Risks include the loss of U.S. aircraft, which would require us to insert personnel recovery forces," Dempsey wrote. "It may also fail to reduce the violence or shift the momentum because the regime relies overwhelmingly on surface fires - mortars, artillery and missiles."

Conducting limited strikes on high-value targets inside Syria could have a "significant degradation of regime capabilities" and would increase the likelihood of individuals deserting the regime. On the other hand, he wrote, "there is a risk that the regime could withstand limited strikes by dispersing its assets." Retaliatory attacks and collateral damage from the U.S. strikes could create large and sometimes unforeseen problems, despite the best planning.

All of this would come, Dempsey argued, at a time of enormous budget uncertainty for the Pentagon that has forced furloughs of civilian workers, cuts to programs and allowed readiness rates to drop to low levels, Pentagon officials say. "This is especially critical as we lose readiness due to budget cuts and fiscal uncertainty," Dempsey wrote. "Some options may not be feasible in time or cost without compromising our security elsewhere."

Dempsey still hedged the issue of his own view in an unclassified forum, never quite providing what he would recommend to his boss, President Barack Obama. But he also conceded that intervention in some form could make a difference. "As we weigh our options, we should be able to conclude with some confidence that the use of force will move us toward the intended outcome." It still amounts to the start of a new conflict after more than a decade getting out of two other ones. "I know that the decision to use force is not one that any of us takes lightly, it is no less an act of war," Dempsey wrote.

It was unclear if Dempsey's letter, intended to appease Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Sen. Levin, would prompt them to move forward on his reappointment to another two years as chairman. A few days before the hearing, a senior officer from the Pentagon had provided a classified briefing for senior Hill members and officials, according to a senior Hill staffer. But the takeaway may have been what got McCain so fired up: Pentagon officials told Hill staffers there is no clear military direction on Syria because there is no clear policy guidance from the White House.

Now Dempsey's reappointment as chairman hangs in the balance as Levin and McCain seek additional information from Dempsey on Syria - knowing full well that the nation's senior military officer is getting directions from the White House on Syria that are ambiguous at best.

Gordon Lubold is a national security reporter at Foreign Policy and author of its Situation Report.

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