A U.S.-led military operation to topple Syrian President Bashir al-Assad's regime could cost up to $300 billion a year and require 300,000 troops.
That's the estimate of the Brookings Institution, which issued a report Monday as Syrian opposition groups continue to plead for Western and regional help as Assad's forces pound rebel fighters and civilians mercilessly. The Obama administration has, for now, ruled out using American military power to oust Assad.
"The greatest issue in deciding whether to launch an invasion is deciding whether Syria should warrant the resources and American lives such an operation would cost," the report states. "An invasion and the early months of an occupation would require 200,000 to 300,000 troops to be done properly. That alone should put the bill for a Syrian invasion at around $200 [billion] to $300 billion per year for as long as that number of troops would have to remain."
That many troops would be required because, like in Iraq and Afghanistan, American forces--joined by Western and Arab troops--would have to stay there for some time to install a new government and keep the peace between competing ethnic and religious groups.
Kenneth Pollack, one of the Brookings analysts who compiled the report, said that an outright Iraq-like invasion with regime change as the goal is unlikely. As it is, America is locked in what many view as an unwinnable war in Afghanistan and is only just extricating itself from Iraq.
"The American people are not looking to fight another ground war in Asia," said Pollack, who was a proponent of the 2003 Iraq war. Some Democrats have pointed to a book he authored pushing for an invasion of Iraq as one of the reasons they supported that operation.
Then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates said in a speech last year that "any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should have his head examined."
Even so, there have been calls from some quarters--including from 2008 GOP presidential candidate and Arizona Sen. John McCain--for the U.S. to resort to military action in Syria, as it did (albeit indirectly) in Libya.
Many analysts, including those who wrote the Brookings report, say a Syrian invasion would have much in common with the volatile and bloody situation after the U.S. toppled Saddam Hussein and his regime in 2003.
Like in Iraq, "the United States would own Syria," Pollack said, bringing silence to the room where the report was unveiled.
The White House has pegged the cost of the Iraq conflict at nearly $1 trillion, and the Congressional Research Service puts the tab at nearly $900 billion. Morethan 4,500 American troops died, and over 30,000 more were wounded.
"An invasion of Syria should not cost nearly as much as the invasion and occupation of Iraq, but it would still be an expensive undertaking," states the Brookings report, "partly because Syria does not have Iraq's oil wealth--which did defray at least part of the costs of the Iraq war."