Syrian no-fly zone would 'cost US$1b a month'

US military chief gives senators estimate and spells out risks involved in other options as calls mount for stronger response to civil war

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 24 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 24 July, 2013, 3:42am


Establishing a no-fly zone to protect Syrian rebels would require hundreds of US aircraft at a cost of more than US$1 billion a month, with no assurance that it would change the momentum in the civil war, the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff says.

In a letter to two senators, General Martin Dempsey outlined the risks, costs and benefits of more aggressive US military action as the White House weighs the next steps in helping the opposition battling President Bashar al-Assad.

The conflict has killed about 100,000 and displaced millions, prompting more calls in Congress for greater US action.

Dempsey said the decision to use force in Syria was not one to be taken lightly. "It is no less than an act of war," he wrote. And once that decision was made, the US had to be prepared for what came next. "Deeper involvement is hard to avoid," he said.

Senator Carl Levin, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, and Senator 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 US response to the 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 defences and creating a no-fly zone.

He said that while these steps would help the opposition and pressure the Assad government, "we have learned from the past 10 years 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.

He said the creation of a no-fly zone would neutralise Syria's air defences. It would require "hundreds of ground- and sea-based aircraft, intelligence and electronic warfare support, and enablers for refuelling and communications. Estimated costs are US$500 million initially, averaging as much as US$1 billion per month over the course of a year."

While it would probably 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.

Dempsey 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."

He 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 organise 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," Dempsey wrote.

"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 said he had provided President Barack Obama with options for the use of US military force in Syria, but he declined to detail those choices.