WASHINGTON (AP) — Establishing a no-fly zone to protect Syrian rebels would require hundreds of US aircraft at a cost of more than $1 billion per month, with no assurance that it would change the momentum in the civil war there, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said Monday.
In a letter to two senators, Gen. Martin Dempsey outlined the risks, costs and benefits of more aggressive US military action as the Obama administration weighs the next steps in helping the opposition battling the forces of President Bashar Assad.
The sectarian conflict has killed an estimated 93,000 and displaced millions, prompting more calls in Congress for greater US action.
Dempsey said the decision to use force in Syria is not one to be taken lightly.
“It is no less than an act of war,” he wrote. And once that decision is made, the US has to be prepared for what may come next. “Deeper involvement is hard to avoid,” he said.
Sen. Carl Levin, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, and Sen. John McCain had pressed Dempsey for his personal assessment before moving ahead with his nomination to another two-year term. McCain and Levin have been pushing for a more aggressive response by the Obama administration to the deadly civil war.
Dempsey spelled out costs, ranging from millions to billions of dollars, for options ranging from training and arming vetted rebel groups, conducting limited strikes on Syria’s air defenses and creating a no-fly zone or buffer zone.
The military leader said that while these steps would help the opposition and pressure Assad’s government, “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’s reference was to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Joint Chiefs chairman said the creation of a no-fly zone would neutralize Syria’s air defenses. It would require “hundreds of ground and sea-based aircraft, intelligence and electronic warfare support, and enablers for refueling and communications. Estimated costs are $500 million initially, averaging as much as a billion dollars per month over the course of a year.”
He said that while it would likely result in the “near total elimination” of Syria’s ability to bomb opposition strongholds, the risks would be the loss of US aircraft. That would mean recovery efforts for American personnel.
He added that such a step “may also fail to reduce the violence or shift the momentum because the regime relies overwhelmingly on surface fires — mortars, artillery and missiles.”
Dempsey said the creation of a buffer zone, most likely a geographic area across the border with Turkey or Jordan, would give opposition forces a place to organize and train. Such a move would require thousands of US ground forces, even stationed outside Syria, to back up those defending the zones.
“We must also understand risk-not just to our forces, but to our other global responsibilities. This 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,” Dempsey wrote.
Dempsey said he has provided President Barack Obama with options for the use of US military force in Syria, but he declined to detail those choices.
“It would be inappropriate for me to try to influence the decision with me rendering an opinion in public about what kind of force we should use,” Dempsey said.
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.