No-fly zone over Syria could run $1 billion a month to do … nothing

posted at 9:21 am on July 23, 2013 by Ed Morrissey

A day ago, Senator John McCain told Newsmax that the US needs to impose a no-fly zone in Syria to “negate Bashar Assad’s power” and force the regime to the negotiating table. Hours later, after McCain and Carl Levin demanded answers from the Joint Chiefs on why the military has not recommended this option, Joint Chiefs chair Martin Dempsey responded that a no-fly zone would cost between $500 million and $1 billion a month — and would largely be a non-sequitur anyway:

The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has told the Senate Armed Services Committee that establishing a no-fly zone over Syria would cost the U.S. $500 million to $1 billion a month and that it might not quell the conflict there because President Bashar Assad’s military primarily relies on artillery, not air power, for most of its offensives.

The no-fly zone scenario was one of several U.S. options that Army Gen. Martin Dempsey presented in a letter to Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., and Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the ranking Republican on the panel.

The letter, dated Friday and released Monday, was written at the senators’ request following a contentious committee hearing last week in which Levin and McCain were dissatisfied with Dempsey’s response to a question about whether he’d recommended U.S. intervention in Syria to President Barack Obama. Dempsey said such a decision was a civilian one, and that he had only discussed the military options with the president.

McCain vowed to block Dempsey’s nomination for a second term as joint chiefs chairman if he didn’t get sufficient answers. Neither McCain nor Levin commented Monday on Dempsey’s downbeat assessment of U.S. options, though they released a letter of their own in response, asking Dempsey for specifics about what options might change the military balance in Syria, where the civil war has killed more than 93,000 people on both sides.

Not only would this be ineffective, it would probably force the US to introduce ground troops at some point:

But he said such an effort would cost $500 million and $1 billion a month and would run the risk of having U.S. boots on the ground if American jets were shot down by Syrian anti-aircraft systems.

“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 momentum because the regime relies overwhelmingly on surface fires – mortars, artillery and missiles.”

Syrian air defenses aren’t exactly state-of-the-art.  Despite having a good portion of their infrastructure destroyed in 1982, Syria still relies on older Soviet systems — which is not to say that they will be entirely ineffective if deployed against the US, either.  The US could reduce or eliminate the risk by attacking that infrastructure first, but it would take a significant ground and naval deployment that would cost billions itself.

In the end, though, that would be nibbling on the edges of the battle.  Assad hasn’t put his air force at risk in this conflict, either out of fear of a response from the West or a lack of capability.  If Assad sticks with artillery, then the only way to effectively reduce his power is with ground forces and air power at the same time, along with plenty of opposing artillery.  We could give that to the opposition, but they mainly consist of al-Qaeda affiliates and other extremist Islamist forces, no doubt helped by the breakout yesterday in Iraq:

Hundreds of extremists were feared to be on the run in Iraq on Monday after al-Qaeda’s affiliate in the country launched a major assault on the infamous Abu Ghraib prison, offering a fresh boost to the group’s resurgent fortunes in Iraq and in Syria.

Iraq’s Interior Ministry said in a statement that an unspecified number of prisoners had escaped from Abu Ghraib but none from a second facility that also came under assault. In Washington, U.S. officials closely monitoring the jailbreak said the number of escapees was thought to be 500 to 600, including a significant number of al-Qaeda operatives. …

But even if the prisoners are recaptured, the scale of the attacks on the heavily guarded facilities reinforced an impression among many Iraqis that their security forces are struggling to cope with a resurgent al-Qaeda since U.S. forces withdrew in 2011, taking with them much of the expertise and technology that had been used to hold extremists at bay.

Even if a no-fly zone was both effective and feasible, in whose service would it be used?  The only two options for the West in Syria are full-scale invasion and occupation to defeat the extremists and Assad at the same time, or staying out of it altogether.  Calling for a no-fly zone when the air force is at best a secondary issue shows just how out of touch with reality the interventionists are … as if we hadn’t had enough demonstrations of that already.


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