The New York Times reports: “The Pentagon has provided Congress with its first detailed list of military options to stem the bloody civil war in Syria, suggesting that a campaign to tilt the balance from President Bashar al-Assad to the opposition would be a vast undertaking, costing billions of dollars, and could backfire on the United States.”

Forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. (Rami Bleible/Reuters) Forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. (Rami Bleible/Reuters)

What follows is a perfect example of what one can expect when the Pentagon doesn’t want to do something or perceives (correctly) that the administration doesn’t want to do something:

Training, advising and assisting opposition troops, he [Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Martin E. Dempsey] 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.

An order to establish buffer zones to protect parts of Turkey or Jordan to provide safe havens for Syrian rebels and a base for delivering humanitarian assistance would require imposing a limited no-fly zone and deploying thousands of American ground forces.

This is simply absurd, according to a number of national security experts. One former official says bluntly, “This is not a serious assessment.” He suggests the Senate Armed Forces Committee seek a more realistic, apolitical assessment.

One is reminded of the Pentagon antics during the Iraq war, which forced President George W. Bush to go outside the chain of command to formulate what later proved to be a successful surge strategy. In this case, however, the military brass is delivering precisely what the president wants — all the excuses he needs to avoid acting in any meaningful way.

You would think the Israelis, who have conducted multiple airstrikes, are some kind of miracle workers, given they didn’t require elaborate arrangements and massive expenses of the type Dempsey puts forth. Indeed, at a foreign policy forum in November, Sen. John McCain explained how a no-fly zone works: “It means that we place anti-air missiles into place. And I guarantee you the first Syrian aircraft we shot down, that would be the last one to fly over a no-fly zone.”

Eliot Cohen, who served in the State Department and now heads the strategic studies program at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins, concurs that the Dempsey document is not a realistic assessment of the situation. He tells me: “Action undoubtedly has its costs. So, too, does inaction — and indeed, those costs are already being felt, with a humanitarian debacle comparable to Rwanda, a severe blow to American credibility (think the president’s imaginary red line), and the transformation of large parts of Syria into an incubator for the next generation of jihadists.” He adds that “it is, of course, also difficult to escape the conclusion that the military wants no part of this mission. Enough said.”

Remember that even when jihadis had not yet overrun the country, the military concocted assessments to show that virtually any action was virtually useless. But of course, had the administration acted decisively 18 months ago to assist the rebels, we would not have had to contend with jihadis, or with Russia, Iran and Hezbollah, which have now entered the fray. Delay and excuse-mongering narrow options and make action more difficult, which in turn leads to more reasons to do nothing.

If this is what the Pentagon serves up to avoid action in Syria, you can only imagine the catastrophic consequences it will concoct to dissuade military action against Iran. This is how “containment” of Iran and ceding part of Syria to Assad become the de facto policies of the United States. (“Some analysts said they believed the administration’s more circumspect public language about Mr. Assad was meant to lay the groundwork for the long-term reality of a divided Syria.”) And this is how genocidal wars continue on and rogue nations get weapons of mass destruction.