March 16, 2012

Planning considerations for military intervention in Syria

U.S. Air Force F-15E Strike Eagle of the 391st Fighter Squadron (366th Fighter Wing)

There has been a lot of talk about possible military intervention in Syria. Several U.S. Senators and Representatives have called for the imposition of a no-fly zone and offensive operations to protect civilians from the Syrian armed forces, similar to military operations in Libya a year ago. Over 8,000 civilians and defected soldiers are believed to have been killed by Syrian troops and the government-sponsored militia known as the shabihah.

For the purposes of this article, I will not debate the merits of whether or not the United States, NATO or some other combination of countries and their armed forces should intervene. As most of my readers are aware, I lived in Syria for several years while assigned to the American embassy in Damascus. I am troubled by the footage I see in the media.

Let's assume that the decision has been made to declare a no-fly zone and protect Syrian civilians from the military and security forces of Bashar al-Asad's regime. Let's also assume that the United States will take a leading role and not try to pass this off to its allies in the puzzling "lead from behind" strategy of the Libyan operation.

Some considerations.

First, let's disabuse ourselves of the notion that this can be accomplished with naval aviation. Even if we amassed several U.S. Navy carriers and some from our allies, there will not be enough offensive air power to accomplish the mission. Syria has a much more sophisticated air force and air defense system than that of Libya. Taking it down will require more force than can be launched from the decks of aircraft carriers. Carrier-based aircraft will be part of the mix, or course, as well as air and sea launched missiles, but not the major players.

For this mission to be successful, it requires land-based aviation. Not to be dismissive of carrier-based aviation, but the numbers of sorties required and the lack of stealth assets in the Navy call for more capability than a few carrier decks can support.

In contrast to carriers which can operate anywhere there are international waters, land-based aviation requires access to foreign air bases. That requires diplomacy to acquire basing rights in countries close to Syria. The most obvious venue from which to launch air operations into Syria is Turkey.

Possible air ingress routes into Syria

Turkey is a member of NATO and is home to a U.S. Air Force wing at Incirlik Air Base. There are no aircraft permanently assigned, but the infrastructure is all in place to handle deployed aircraft. The U.S. Air Force and NATO exercise this capability frequently. Incirlik is located less than 100 miles from the Syrian border, just over 100 miles to the scene of Syrian army assaults on civilians in Idlib, and about 175 miles from Homs, scene of repeated regime assaults on civilians. There are other air bases in Turkey from which aircraft could operate over Syria.

Should more air bases be required to augment Turkish air bases and whatever carriers are dedicated to the operation (virtually none were used in the Libyan operation), Saudi Arabia is an option. Saudi bases are approximately 600 miles from Syria, and about 750 miles to the southern cities which have been home to opposition activities against the government. Note that the flight route from Saudi Arabia to Syria overflies Iraq. Iraq has virtually no air defenses, so theoretically, U.S. and NATO aircraft could operate there with impunity, using Saudi airspace for air refueling.

Use of Iraqi airspace - which would not be with Iraqi permission - raises a series of issues. First, Iraq has become an ally of both Syria and Iran, to the point of allowing Iranian resupply flights en route to Syria to overfly Iraq. This is a more direct route than the traditional flight route through Turkish airspace and circumvents possible Turkish inspection of the flights. Although the United States has asked Iraq to either halt the flights or demand inspections, Iraq has refused, claiming that the flights only carry humanitarian aid. I guess we can trust the Iranians on that....

There is a possibility that Iran will attempt to defend Iraqi airspace if requested to do so by Baghdad. In addition to wanting to expand its relations with Iraq into the military arena, Iran also has a mutual defense treaty with Syria. Will Iran feel compelled to respond to a U.S.-NATO attack on its allies in Damascus? Will it do that by defending Iraqi airspace?

Another option is to secure permission from American-ally Jordan to transit Jordanian airspace from Saudi Arabia to targets in Syria. I am of the opinion that the use of Jordan's air bases is not a viable option. Use of Jordan's airspace makes the journey from Tabuk air base in northern Saudi Arabia to Syria's southern cities less than 300 miles.

The use of Jordanian airspace is more of a question than the use of Saudi airfields. Saudi Arabia is exasperated with the situation in Syria. It, along with all of the other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), have closed their embassies in Damascus. Saudi Arabia and its GCC allies are wary not only of Iran's nuclear weapons program, but also its alliance with Syria. A likely outcome of intervention in Syria is the removal of the al-Asad regime and the Ba'th Party, thus a break in the Syria-Iran alliance, a move that would not be unwelcome in Riyadh.

Once the decision is made to impose a no-fly zone and mount operations to protect Syrian civilians, as in Libya, we will need to begin with the destruction or suppression of Syrian air defenses. There has been a lot of press reporting about a "formidable" air defense system. I would assess the system as large, but not necessarily formidable.

In the past, American forces have faced these supposed formidable air defenses replete with Russian radars and surface-to-air missiles. While the quality of much of Syria's equipment is questionable, they have a lot of it, and as we say often when dealing with huge numbers of usually reliable Russian weapons, "quantity has a quality all its own."

Syria's air defenses are not unlike those we faced in Iraq. There is a national air defense system that is centralized and integrated not only with a variety of surface-to-air missiles, but with air force fighter aircraft as well. In addition, there are thousands of mobile air defense missiles and antiaircraft artillery pieces attached to Syrian Army units throughout the country. On my road trips as a military attache in Syria, I was constantly impressed with the number of air defense weapons all across Syria.

That said, Israeli aircraft have had great success in neutralizing Syria's air defenses through a combination of excellent airmanship and state-of-the-art electronic warfare. There is no reason to believe that U.S. - and to some extent NATO - aircraft will not be able to operate effectively against Syrian air defenses.

There is history for that assessment. As recently as 2007, Israeli jets bombed the al-Kibar nuclear reactor in northeastern Syria, conducting the raid virtually undetected until the bombs impacted on the targets. Israeli jets have on several occasions conducted low level overflights of Bashar al-Asad's summer palace in Latakia in northern Syria, again undetected until the jet roar was heard in the hallways.

Once Syria's air defenses have been degraded to an acceptable level and the air force has either been marginalized, destroyed or deterred, then the pilots can go about the business of protecting Syrian civilians from the Syrian army and shabihah militia. With luck, as in Libya, it will lead to the fall of the as-Asad regime. It would be a good outcome - civilians will be protected, the autocratic Ba'th Party regime of Bashar al-Asad will be gone and hopefully the alliance with Iran will be over. One can only hope that without its tether to Iran, Lebanese Hizballah will collapse as well.

If - and that's a big "if" - it is determined that the introduction of ground forces are required to properly coordinate the airstrikes or work with the Syrian opposition (primarily the Free Syrian Army), these should be small, special operations teams only. We do not need to put more American troops on the ground in the Middle East unless there are real American interests at stake, and we are prepared to actually fight to win a war and not devolve into a nation-building effort.

The bottom line: Syria is not Libya, but American and NATO forces have the capability to impose a no-fly zone and protect Syrian civilians. The unknown is how much it will cost in terms of blood and treasure. After all, there will be casualties on both sides and there will be civilian deaths - it is inevitable in this environment. Does this Administration have the political will to do this? We cannot "lead from behind" on this one.