Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey told lawmakers Monday that a no-fly zone in Syria would cost $500 million initially and as much as $1 billion per month to maintain.
Dempsey’s letter, which lays out the costs and benefits to a range of military options, expresses skepticism over U.S. military intervention helping to end the two-year civil war and what might come afterward.
“We must anticipate and be prepared for the unintended consequences of our action,” Dempsey wrote. “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.”
At the hearing, McCain argued Dempsey was breaking with committee protocol when he would not give his personal opinion on what the U.S. should do militarily. McCain threatened a hold on Dempsey’s nomination afterward.
Dempsey laid out the U.S. military options being considered in Syria
in his Monday letter, as Levin requested at the end of his confirmation
Dempsey again noted that he was not weighing in on whether military action should be used.
“The decision over whether to introduce military force is a political one that our nation entrusts to its civilian leaders,” Dempsey wrote. “I also understand that you deserve my best military advice on how military force could be used in order to decide whether it should be used.”
In a follow-up on Friday, Levin and McCain sent Dempsey a list of 11 questions, including six on Syria. Levin’s office said he expects a response to that letter later this week.
Dempsey’s response on Monday outlines five options: training the opposition, conducting limited stand-off strikes, establishing a no-fly zone, establishing a buffer zone and controlling chemical weapons.
Dempsey says the cost of training troops is estimated at $500 million in the first year, and the price tag for larger military options is much higher. He writes that limited strikes would be “in the billions,” while a no-fly zone, buffer zone and a controlling of chemical weapons would all be roughly $1 billion per month or higher.
The Obama administration has said it will begin arming vetted Syrian opposition groups, and many lawmakers have said they want a no-fly zone, too.
No lawmakers has supported putting U.S. boots on the ground, which Dempsey said would be a risk if the U.S. tries to control Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles.
Throughout his letter, Dempsey warned that U.S. military steps could wind up benefiting extremist groups operating within the opposition, a risk that has prompted caution from both the administration and lawmakers.
Dempsey cautioned against considering military options in “isolation” and said they should be discussed as part of a “whole-of-government strategy.”
“To this end, I have supported a regional approach that would isolate the conflict to prevent regional destabilization and weapons proliferation,” Dempsey said. “At the same time, we should help develop a moderate opposition — including their military capabilities — while maintaining pressure on the Assad regime.”