Earlier this year, Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, supplied Senator Levin options for intervention in Syria. What could the U.S. and what would be involved. The PDF is still available as is a similar letter sent to a member of the House. General Dempsey outlines five different options in increasing order of expense and effort:
- Train, Advise, Assist the Opposition
- Conduct Limited Stand-off Strikes
- Establish a No-Fly Zone
- Establish Buffer Zones
- Control Chemical Weapons
Those eager for an intervention might take a look at this letter to get a sense of what is involved. Here is what is involved with the second option:
This option uses lethal force to strike targets that enable the regime to conduct military operations, proliferate advanced weapons, and defend itself. Potential targets include high-value regime air defense, air, ground, missile, and naval forces as well as the supporting military facilities and command nodes. Stand-off air and missile systems could be used to strike hundreds of targets at a tempo of our choosing. Force requirements would include hundreds of aircraft, ships, submarines, and other enablers.
Depending on duration, the costs would be in the billions. Over time, the impact would be the significant degradation of regime capabilities and an increase in regime desertions. There is a risk that the regime could withstand limited strikes by dispersing its assets. Retaliatory attacks are also possible, and there is a probability for collateral damage impacting civilians and foreigners inside the country.
The last option involves ground troops. Last year, the Pentagon said 75,000 ground troops would be required for securing chemical weapons.
One should also be aware of Syria’s air defenses which are considerably more developed than Libya’s were. As recently as 2007, the Israelis took out a Syrian nuclear reactor. That raid gave the regime ample motivation to beef up its defenses:
MIT’s [doctoral candidate Brian] Haggerty identifies nearly 450 likely targets for a suppression of enemy air defenses (SEAD) campaign, including more than 20 C2 (command and control) and early warning facilities, 150 surface-to-air (SAM) sites, 205 aircraft shelters, and 32 additional airfield-related targets, as well as dozens of additional surface-to-surface or anti-ship missile targets that could threaten bases or ships in the theater. Libya had only 31 comparable SAM sites, some of which were already in rebel-controlled territory, and just five airfields required serious strikes, because some were under rebel control. Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles (TLAMs) appear to offer an easy solution to initial SEAD needs, but limitations exist.
In his letter to Senator Levin, General Dempsey makes clear that there are significant political and strategic decisions involved in deciding whether to intervene in Iraq. A useful summary of the difficulties in the latest proposal is provided by three writers at the European Council on Foreign Relations. A useful overview is provided by their statement:
Given the dominance of the CW [chemical weapons] prism in western messaging, the potential consequences of military action for the Syria conflict and for a dangerously polarised and destabilised region are being paid insufficient attention. Less than one per cent of casualties in Syria are even being attributed to CW claims – if there is a plan involving military action to reduce the suffering of Syrians and improve the situation, then presumably that would be aired irrespective of proof of CW use. The assumption therefore has to be that no good plan exists. Nevertheless and as is known to decision-makers, any action will have consequences well beyond the CW issue – so any proposed action should also be measured against broader criteria of prospective implications for Syria and broader regional issues (including sectarian escalation, refugee flows and instability in Iraq and Lebanon, radicalisation and diplomacy with Iran).
U.S. policy in the Middle East brims with unintended consequences: the coup we engineered in Iran has resulted in a hostile government there; the intervention in Iraq resulted in giving Iran a shiny new ally. An intervention in Syria could actually have even worse unintended consequences:
Another CW [chemical weapon] danger in the Syria arena is likely to be the scenario of such weapons falling into the hands of irregular and notably AQ [al Qaeda] affiliated or AQ-Style salafi jihadist groups. There are good reasons that the West has sought to avoid a total collapse of the Syria state, an ill-considered military option could undermine that goal and accentuate the danger of CW capabilities reaching multiple users.
General Dempsey also warns that prescribing the limits of any given action can be particularly difficult. This happened, for example, with the bombing of Serbia.
The writers at the European Council on Foreign Relations argue strongly that diplomatic efforts to de-escalate the Syrian conflict are urgently needed, and that Syria’s neighbors could play a useful role in that effort.