The U.S. Inches Closer to Syria Intervention, but No One Seems Happy About It

The Slatest
Your News Companion by Ben Mathis-Lilley
July 23 2013 10:00 AM

The Pentagon Briefs Lawmakers on a $1-Billion-a-Month No-Fly Zone in Syria

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Syrian volunteers try to evacuate 8-year-old Mahmud Fayad still trapped under the rubble of a destroyed house after a barrel bomb was dropped from an air force helicopter in Saraqeb in northwestern Syria on July 20, 2013

Photo by Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP/Getty Images

The United States this week slowly inched ever closer toward intervention in Syria, where the ongoing bloody civil war has already claimed more than 100,000 lives and counting. Skeptical lawmakers gave the green light for the Obama administration to move forward with a plan to arm select groups of struggling Syrian rebels with rifles and basic anti-tank weaponry, while the Pentagon provided Congress with its most detailed look yet into what larger scale American involvement could eventually look like. Neither the near-term nor long-term plan sounds particularly enticing to those involved.

Josh Voorhees Josh Voorhees

Josh Voorhees is a Slate senior writer. He lives in Iowa City. 

"It is important to note that there are still strong reservations," House Intelligence Chairman Mike Rogers told Reuters on Monday, confirming that his colleagues have nonetheless given the White House the go-ahead to move forward with the arms plan, which could begin in the coming weeks. The covert operation will be run by the CIA, a decision the Washington Post explains helps "avoid international law restrictions on military efforts to overthrow another government and the need for wider congressional approval."

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The Pentagon, meanwhile, is at work examining its options for larger scale American involvement on the ground and in the air around Syria. In a letter made public Monday, Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, gave Congress its first detailed look at the options on the table. In short, the plans are viewed even by those who drew them up as pricey and potentially ineffective. In the words of the New York Times, even the military brass concedes that any effort to help the Syrian opposition oust President Bashar al-Assad "would be be a vast undertaking, costing billions of dollars, and could backfire on the United States."

Here's a quick breakdown of the pricey military menu on offer, as laid out by Dempsey in his letter to Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin, via the Times:

Training, advising and assisting opposition troops, he wrote, could require anywhere from several hundred to several thousand troops, and cost about $500 million a year. An offensive of limited long-range strikes against Syrian military targets would require hundreds of aircraft and warships and could cost billions of dollars over time. Imposing a no-fly zone would require shooting down government warplanes and destroying airfields and hangars. It would also require hundreds of aircraft. The cost could reach $1 billion a month.

The $1-billion-a-month price tag aside, a no-fly zone of some kind appears to be the military tool most likely to be used if the United States increases its involvement beyond arming the rebels. Dempsey says a small one would be needed to establish buffer zones along the borders of Turkey and/or Jordan to provide safe havens for rebels and a base for humanitarian aid. A larger-scale mission that prevents the use or proliferation of chemical weapons would require a wider no-fly zone, as well as a significant airstrike campaign, according to Dempsey.

Just in case all that isn't enough to highlight the lack of an easy answer to the problem that is Assad, Dempsey also offered the rather dire warning that any decision to use force "is no less than an act of war," one that could "inadvertently empower extremists or unleash the very chemical weapons we seek to control."

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