November 21, 2012

Syria - After the U.S. election, an opportunity for action?

US Army Patriot air defense missile battery

Now that the U.S. presidential election is over - الحمد لله - perhaps we can move to address the problems that had been allowed to fester as the Obama Administration focused on remaining in office. One of the most pressing issues - and there are others, to be sure - is Syria. Reliable figures of how many people have died in the civil war are hard to come by, but conservative estimates place the death toll at over 36,000.

Skeptics will shortsightedly argue that what happens in Syria is not a threat to the national interests of the United States. The "Syria issue" is just not about Syria. You cannot view this in isolation - events in Syria affect what happens in neighboring Lebanon, including the future of Hizballah, and impact on the west's dealings with Iran over the Islamic Republic's nuclear weapons program.

Let's start by looking at what can be done to stop to the killing in Syria. There are calls by many inside and outside Syria for a no-fly zone, citing as an example the no-fly zone imposed on Libya last year. Syria is not Libya - the country is much more populated, the population centers are much further from the coast, and the country is protected by state-of-the-art, very capable Russian air defense systems.

The Turks have proposed a safety zone inside Syria, protected by U.S. and NATO Patriot air defense missile batteries inside Turkey, deployed along the Syrian border. The Patriot system can reach out as far as 100 miles, placing aircraft flying over the entire governorates of Aleppo and Idlib in range. These two areas have seen some of the most brutal air attacks over the course of the civil war. Syrian jet fighters and attack helicopters are the most feared weapon that the Syrian regime possesses.

The Free Syrian Army, the rebels, have been able to down around 75 aircraft, about half of them helicopters. They have done this with captured air defense artillery systems and shoulder-fired missiles, but the Syrians have been quick to adapt their tactics to the threat. Over the last month, Syrian air force pilots fly their aircraft at high speed and high altitudes while dropping flares to decoy heat-seeking missiles.

Airpower is the regime's most potent weapon. Even the opposition fighters acknowledge that for the most part, they are defenseless. While they have downed over 70 regime fighters and helicopters, that is a small percentage of the number of sorties launched by the Syrian air force. Each aircraft carries multiple weapons - they range from the conventional high-explosive general purpose bombs, normally about 500 pounds, to cluster munitions with hundreds of smaller sub-munitions, each capable of destroying a 60-ton tank, or the fuel-air explosive weapons that have the concussive effects just short of nuclear weapons. Add the locally-developed "barrel bomb," a crude home-made canister filled with explosives and nails, ball bearings, etc. See my description of this weapon, The Syrian "barrel bomb" - a terror weapon.

About all the Free Syrian Army can do is harass the pilots into flying out of anti-aircraft artillery range and the relatively outdated SA-7 shoulder-fired heat-seeking missile, but the effect of the bombing is the same - utter devastation of Syria's cities, the division of the country into sectarian groups and animosities that will last for generations.

What can we do?

The proposed safe zone protected by Patriot missiles could be a start, but it will not be as effective as a no-fly zone patrolled by U.S. and NATO aircraft. To impose a true no-fly zone, the Syrian air defenses would have to be attacked. Syria's air defense system is much more advanced and robust than Libya, so it will take some time to neutralize the weapons systems, their radars and the command and control system.

We also need to engage the Syrian opposition, now united in a loose coalition, even to the point of affording the Syrian National Coalition for Opposition and Revolutionary Forces some level of diplomatic recognition. There are concerns over the number of Muslin Brotherhood and other Islamist groups members in the coalition, but ignoring the coalition will not solve the issue.

If the United States hopes to exercise any influence over the course of events in Syria, it must be in the game. When the Syrian regime falls, we need to be ready to assist the follow-on government to resist the establishment of an Islamic state - the goal of many in the opposition. We need to be in a position to convince a new government to break away from Iran and re-enter the Middle East peace process.

We cannot afford to "lead from behind" - we need be out in front of this one. It is past time to do something.