Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, appears July 18 before the Senate Armed Services Committee in Washington. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)
After months of political sparring on Capitol Hill and cautious comments by military leaders over the possibilities for military intervention in the bloody Syrian conflict, lawmakers have now received their first public military assessment from Pentagon leadership.
In a letter to Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey offered a rather gloomy view of what it would take for the United States to set up a “no-fly zone” over parts of Syria.
Dempsey wrote that start up costs would initially be about $500 million, but could quickly rise to $1 billion per month due to the “hundreds of ground- and sea-based aircraft, intelligence and electronic warfare support, and enablers for refueling and communications” that would be required to sustain such an effort.
While the no-fly mission “would likely include the near total elimination of the regime’s ability to bomb opposition strongholds,” it would also put American aircraft at risk and “may also fail to reduce the violence or shift the momentum because the regime relies overwhelmingly on surface fires — mortars, artillery, and missiles.”
Recently retired Central Command chief Gen. James Mattis said much the same thing during an interview at the Aspen Security Forum on July 20.
“I guarantee you if ordered to do it, CENTCOM can do a no-fly zone,” he said, but “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.”
In the end, Mattis continued, “the killing will go on on the ground because they are not using aircraft to do most of the killing.”
Dempsey’s letter comes after a request from Levin during his contentious July 18 nomination hearing in which Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Dempsey repeatedly clashed over the question of military aid to Syria.
While Dempsey is currently traveling in Afghanistan, his response on Monday lays out five options: train and advise the opposition, conduct limited stand-off strikes, establish a no-fly zone, establish a buffer zone, and control chemical weapons.
The train-and-advise mission might require anywhere from several hundred to several thousand U.S. troops, with Dempsey estimating the bill at about $500 million per year.
The mission would require the assent of regional partners since US troops wouldn’t enter Syria, but potential downfalls of this plan “include extremists gaining access to additional capabilities, retaliatory crossborder attacks, and insider attacks or inadvertent association with war crimes due to vetting difficulties,” Dempsey wrote.
Stand-off strikes would require “hundreds of aircraft, ships, submarines, and other enablers,” with costs likely to be “in the billions.”
A “buffer zone” inside Syria that would allow the rebels the space to train would also require thousands of troops standing by in neighboring countries, as well as a limited no-fly zone.
Any attempt to destroy parts of “Syria’s massive stockpile” of chemical weapons would in some ways be the most risky, according to Dempsey’s letter, since the mission would call for a no-fly zone and air and missile strikes, along with “thousands of special operations forces and other ground forces would be needed to assault and secure critical sites.”
This spring, the Army sent a team of chemical weapons experts to Jordan to advise the government there on potential missions. It has also stationed an extra Patriot missile battery in Jordan, leaving it behind after a military exercise with Jordanian forces earlier this summer.
Dempsey used the opportunity to hit Congress on the mandatory budget cuts that sequestration is forcing the Pentagon to assume, writing that a careful weighing of all options before taking military action “is especially critical as we lose readiness due to budget cuts and fiscal uncertainty. Some options may not be feasible in time or cost without compromising our security elsewhere.”
The US is already providing some aid to the Syrian rebels, with the State Department now paying some police officers in rebel-controlled territory about $150 a month.
“There are literally thousands of defected police inside of Syria, they are credible in their communities because they’ve defected,” said Rick Barton, assistant secretary of state for conflict and stabilization operations at the Aspen Security Forum on July 19.
The police continue to do their job without pay, Barton said, so this small stipend will hopefully keep them on the job.
“We’d rather have a trained policeman who is trusted by the community than have to bring in a new crowd or bring in an international group that doesn’t know the place,” he added.
The State Department has also been providing secure communications technologies to some Syrian fighters he said, while the rebels wait for further American shipments of things like night vision goggles and medical supplies which are currently held up in a series of American bureaucratic and legal roadblocks.