The Smart Money: The economics of Syrian intervention

Posted Wednesday, September 4, 2013 in Analysis

The Smart Money: The economics of Syrian intervention

by Gina Hamilton

We'll look at Congress, the debt ceiling, and the ramifications of a shutdown next week, because there is another, more immediate economic issue facing the U.S. today.

That is, whether to intervene or not in the Syrian civil war, after the use by someone in that country of nerve agent, which killed more than a thousand people.  Although the U.S. says it has "high confidence" that it was the government of President Bashir al-Assad that launched the missiles, there are other points of view, and Assad categorically denies responsibility, which isn't terribly surprising.

On Friday, the British parliament declined to get involved.  NATO had already said it was a United Nations issue, since it was the UN's charters against the use of chemical weapons that had been violated.  The UN is at an impasse, because the Security Council, where any decisions are made on peacekeeping forces, contains the U.S., France, Russia, and China, and these nations are at loggerheads on the issue.  France says it will stand with the U.S., the only European ally so to do.   However, over the weekend, facing growing pressure and little public support, President Barack Obama said he would "consult" Congress on Syria.  This left Congress as 'the dog who caught the car', and lawmakers say they will vote by September 9.  Obama's action has stirred the French National Assembly to call for President Francois Hollande to put the matter before them as well.

Obama, for his part, said that the Congressional vote is a courtesy and does not carry the force of law, citing precedent in which the executive can act independently of Congress in a national emergency.  Hollande has law on his side; he does not need the Assembly approval for four months, long after the "intervention" is expected to be over.

But both countries will have to pay for whatever intervention is taken, and the cost, even of doing nothing but sitting on warships in the Mediterranean or Red Sea, is high.

Running an aircraft carrier, without taking into account personnel and their needs, costs about $500,000 per day.  The USS Nimitz is being positioned in the Red Sea as this goes to print.  The U.S. has another five warships operating in the eastern Mediterranean, one involved with war games with Israel.  Each of those ships costs about $300,000 to operate, without personnel.  The complement for the aircraft carrier is 5,000 hands; the complement for each of the destroyers is almost 300.  An amphibious Marine ship, the USS San Antonio, is also now just offshore from Syria.  Its normal complement is 363, and it is carrying helicopters which brings its numbers up slightly.  Assuming its cost is about the same as the navy destroyers, it is costing us $2.3 million per day just to have the ships in the water, even if they never do a thing.

The cost of the personnel includes their salaries, an average of $140 per day, and the cost of meeting their needs, which is about $50 per day at sea.  So the total of personnel costs is about $1.3 million per day, bringing our daily costs for the Syrian operation that hasn't happened yet to $3.6 million.

No one is yet sure what actions will be taken, or when, but the costs of the operation could range from a few million for a "surgical strike" to considerably more than that if the Marines go in, or if the aircraft carrier sends planes. 

But that's just the first step.  Assad has threatened Israel obliquely, as well as "French interests".  That could mean Lebanon, where France and Lebanon have strong mutual aid agreements, or north Africa, where France has cultural ties.  It could even mean bombing parts of Syria itself that have strong ties to France.

Such a retaliatory action could escalate the conflict well beyond Syria's borders, involving Israel, Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, and possibly Iraq. 

However, the story could get more complicated yet. 

Iran has ties to Syria, which probably accounts for the aircraft carrier's presence in the Red Sea. 

Egypt may be moved to come to the aid of Assad.  Since the military deposed and arrested its Islamist leader in a military coup this summer, Egypt is flirting with pan-Arabism - a strong union of Arab nationalists that are more secular than the Islamic revolutionaries that arose in the 70s and 80s. Egypt was the first pan-Arabist under Nassar, but after the Six Days War with Israel (and the subsequent loss of some of the Arab states, particularly Saudi Arabia, the United Emirates, and Kuwait) pan-Arabism lost much of its appeal.  The Assads were always strong secular pan-Arabists, however, and if Egypt comes to their aid, the accords with Israel, especially Camp David, may be considered dead. 

Although not entirely expected, if the wider world gets involved ... Russia on Syria's side, the U.S. on Israel's side ... things could get far more deadly ... and expensive.  Even if not, a proxy war in the mideast, with some of the deadliest weapons on the planet held by Syria and Israel, a NATO alliance in place with Turkey, and what the experts call "asymmetrical warfare" being waged in the confusion by the Palestinians, Hamas and Hezbollah, would lead to significant casualties, both in terms of collateral damage and in terms of economic costs, to the U.S., to say nothing of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, only just resuming after a long diplomatic silence.

Assad has described the region as a tinder keg and says that "the fire is coming".  America alone, or even with France, simply does not have the money to burn. While it is important to solve the issue of chemical weapons use in the proper forum, with high-level diplomacy to bring other Security Council members on board, the costs, human and economic, of a regional war in the mideast, without UN direction, is too high a price to pay to teach one man a lesson.

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