Syria's air defenses can be defeated through direct military action, America's top general said on Tuesday, though the outcome is unlikely to stabilize the Middle Eastern nation torn apart by more than two years of brutal civil war.
The White House and senior defense officials admitted last week they believe Syria has used chemical weapons against rebels, prompting some lawmakers to renew calls on the U.S. to enforce a no-fly zone, among other direct action from the military that might help opposition forces defeat the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
They point to the U.S. military's presence in the skies over Libya in 2011 that helped the revolutionary forces overthrow Col. Muammar Gadhafi.
"Pilots are not going to fly into certain death. I don't care how brave they are," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a former Navy pilot. "You shoot down one or two of them, and they're not going to fly there again. They may like Bashar al-Assad, but they like to live a little more."
Yet others have argued strenuously against military action – including a no-fly zone – because of Syria's "advanced anti-air defenses."
President Barack Obama said at a press conference on Tuesday that while he is considering military action, it "would be an escalation, in our view, of the threat to the security of the international community, our allies, and the U.S."
Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, who is chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, says sorties over Syria are a daunting but feasible prospect, and doubts the virtue of the likely outcome.
"The U.S. military has the capability to defeat that system, but it would be a greater challenge, and would take longer and require more resources" than in Libya, Dempsey said during a lunch meeting with reporters.
"The air defense picture in Libya is dramatically different than it is in Syria," he said. "Syria has five times more air defense systems, some of which are high-end systems, that is to say higher altitude, longer range."
These systems are primarily set up in the western third of the country, he said, and are much more dense and dislocated than those in EpLibya.
What is now considered the Syrian civil war began in March 2011. It has displaced over a million Syrians from their homes, and forced more than 100,000 refugees into each of its neighboring countries, including Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan.
A no-fly zone would be militarily effective, Dempsey said, though it likely won't produce the kind of outcome that members of Congress or the American people would desire, such as an end to the violence, political reconciliation and stability in the country and region.
"That's the reason I've been cautious about the application of a military-distributed power, because it's not clear to me that it would produce that outcome," he said. "Options are ready, and if it becomes clear to me or if I'm ordered to do so, we will act.
"At this point, that hasn't occurred."
Dempsey also estimates that air strikes only account for roughly 10 percent of the total casualties in Syria, which by some estimates exceeds 80,000. Direct fire or artillery account for the remaining 90 percent.
Pentagon chief Chuck Hagel announced last week the U.S. would send a larger military headquarters unit to neighboring Jordan to help maintain security at its border with Syria and the potential spread of chemical weapons.
There are roughly 1,500 troops currently in Jordan, Dempsey said Tuesday, though that number fluctuates. They largely operate a "command and control" and communications function, in addition to training Jordanian troops and logistics planning for a humanitarian operation.