Dempsey: Syria Intervention ‘Could Inadvertently Empower Extremists’

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According to the nation’s top military officer, direct U.S. intervention in Syria would be extremely costly, risk mission creep, lend itself to unintended consequences, and may be ineffective.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey has written a letter spelling out all the costs and risks of various kinds of U.S. military interventions in Syria. He writes that the decision to take military action shouldn’t be taken “lightly” and that such action would be “no less than an act of war.”

  • Dempsey estimates that “training, advising, and assisting the opposition” would cost “$500 million per year initially,” and perhaps more after that. The risks in this option, he says, “include extremists gaining access to additional capabilities, retaliatory crossborder attacks, and insider attacks or inadvertent association with war crimes due to vetting difficulties.”
  • The option of “conducting limited stand-off strikes” would be no small task, as some have suggested. It would require American “force requirements” including “hundreds of aircraft, ships, submarines, and other enablers,” and “the costs would be in the billions.” The Assad regime may not even be too damaged in this option, Dempsey informed. “Retaliatory attacks are also possible,” he added, “and there is a probability for collateral damage impacting civilians and foreigners inside the country.”
  • Establishing a no-fly zone would cost about $1 billion per month and “would require hundreds of ground and sea-based aircraft, intelligence and electronic warfare support, and enablers for refueling and communications.” “Risks include the loss of U.S. aircraft, which would require us to insert personnel recovery forces,” according to Dempsey. “It may also fail to reduce the violence or shift the momentum because the regime relies overwhelmingly on surface firesmortars, artillery, and missiles.”
  • Setting up “buffer zones” or “safe areas” would require “thousands of U.S. ground forces,” and cost over $1 billion per month. While it could keep civilians safe, it could also put them at more risk if they “become operational bases for extremists” or if the “regime surface fires into the zones.”
  • And finally, gaining control over the chemical weapons sites would require setting up a no-fly zone (with its associated costs), “thousands of special operations forces and other ground forces,” and would cost “well over” $1 billion per month. “Our inability to fully control Syria’s storage and delivery systems could allow extremists to gain better access,” Dempsey added.

After all of those considerations, Dempsey makes clear that even if they all worked, weakening or toppling the regime “is not enough.” The U.S. would then be in the position of cleaning up the mess and that could mean another decade-long nation-building (and probably counter-insurgency) effort.

“We have learned from the past 10 years,” Dempsey writes, “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. We must anticipate and be prepared for the unintended consequences of our action. Should the regime’s institutions collapse in the absence of a viable opposition, we could inadvertently empower extremists or unleash the very chemical weapons we seek to control.”

To close observers, though, this should be review. Dempsey and other military officials have been repeatedly issuing these warnings about the costs and (in)effectiveness of U.S. intervention in Syria for over a year now.

Here’s Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel outlining some of the big picture risks at a Senate hearing last April:

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