Elliott Abrams

Pressure Points

Abrams gives his take on U.S. foreign policy, with special focus on the Middle East and democracy and human rights issues.

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What Was That About Syria’s “Lethal” Air Defenses?

by Elliott Abrams
January 31, 2013


Israel’s air strike on a Syrian weapons convoy is not the first such successful attack they have done. In September 2007, Israel attacked the nuclear reactor Syria was building (with North Korean help) and eliminated it. In both these cases, Syria’s air defenses proved worthless and Israel lost no planes.

These facts are worth noting because a major and repeated excuse for American passivity in Syria has been the claimed effectiveness of those air defenses. Last March, for example, New York Times editor Bill Keller voiced the conventional view of those supporting Obama policy by arguing that the President was right about Libya but is also right about Syria:

Syria is much harder. Libya had weak air defenses deployed along the coastline, easily accessible to Western bombers. Syria’s defenses are more lethal, more plentiful and spread across inland population centers.

More recently the Times expressed its own editorial view about intervening in any way in Syria:

the hazards are substantial. Syria is more complicated than Libya, where NATO aided a rebel victory by establishing a no-fly zone. It has more advanced Russian air defense systems near population centers that would have to be taken out first, which could cause more civilian casualties.

We are left wondering why Israel seems to be able to dodge those “advanced,” “lethal,” “plentiful” air defenses at will. Here’s a theory. The U.S. Air Force is plenty capable of doing what the Israeli Air Force has done. Syria’s air defenses are a problem and a threat, but they are above all an excuse for inaction. They appear to be far more effective at justifying our policy of inaction than they are at bringing down attacking airplanes.

Post a Comment 9 Comments

  • Posted by Christopher Bollyn

    Syrian air defenses were the first target of the massive car bombing campaign that accompanied the beginning of the civil war in Syria. These huge car bombs destroyed buildings that were part of the Syrian air defense system. This was the best indication that Israel was involved in the violence in Syria. Now we see why.

  • Posted by canadiansyrian

    I wonder which redline he crossed ? (Assad is scared of Isreal`s redlines but not Obama`s).

    Iareali jets can fly and bomb Assad anytime ! Nato and the NewYork Times and all the military “experts” should ask Isreal
    Thank you Isreal for bombing , next time bomb his palace .

  • Posted by canadiansyrian

    @ Christopher Bollyn !
    oh ya ? and what about in 2001 when the brave Isreali pilots BUZZED Assad` palace while sleepin with Asma (and spoiled the mood if you know what I mean)?
    what about the 2007 when Isreal bombed the Syrian nuclear site ? . Now we see you have no memory .

  • Posted by Lee

    Israel’s pin point air strike on a Syrian weapons convoy was a pre-emptive strike,
    Like a vaccination against a disease.

    & if there were a way to prick the Ebola virus by vaccination, then that’s what normal people and nations do.

    It was revealed and acknowledged that the trucks were packed with high range and high load missiles headed for Hezbollah across the border in Lebanon, poised threateningly to attack Israel, with the same blind hate rant as that of its Masters in Iran.

    These missiles were capable of delivering chemical attacks on this little nation state.

    Yes little, and yes, needing to defend itself.
    Take a look at http://www.masada2000.org to see the reality in perspective, over time, and then see who is attacking whom.
    Defense, not aggression. Self-protection against invasion and takeover.

    It’s time to reconsider Jordan as Palestine. Think about it.

  • Posted by lord garth

    the Syrian air defenses were never an important part of the Obama admin policy of non interference (although the NYTimes may think otherwise)

    one primary reason is that the Obama admin couldn’t get anything approaching an OK to use military force (we got Congressional approval to use force in Afghanistan and Iraq and UN approval in Libya)

    of course the obama admin probably is happy not to have an OK because it using force would require all kinds of decisions on what kinds of targets and what acceptable collateral damage would be and Obama really doesn’t want to have to make those call

  • Posted by Christopher Bollyn

    The bombings of Syrian air force headquarters are much more recent than 2001 or 2007. These massive car bombings of Syrian military and air force command centers occurred in 2011 and 2012, as I wrote in “The Massacres in Syria and Israel’s ‘War of Terror’ ” in June 19, 2012:

    This is a war that is being fought by deception and proxy. Syria is a key ally of Iran and Russia. Many of the massive car bombs that were exploded in Syria targeted military and air force intelligence buildings. Degrading Syrian military intelligence would be advantageous to Israeli military planners as they plan to attack Iran. Destabilizing Syria would be essential in Israel’s war strategy against Iran. Death squads, like those that carried out the massacres in Sabra and Shatila, and terrorism are used to create atrocities to sway public opinion against the regime, who is duly blamed for every atrocity. Just like in the former Yugoslavia, which is the model, and the subsequent Balkanization that resulted in a half dozen weak and corrupt ethnic statlets. This is actually the Zionist plan for the Middle East.

  • Posted by Aaron Burr

    @ Christopher Bollyn

    I actually followed your argument until “This is actually the Zionist plan for the Middle East” was tacked onto the end.

    And your source for the Zionist plan for the middle east is?

  • Posted by Christopher Bollyn

    Israel’s strategic plan to break up the Middle Eastern states into smaller ethnic statelets is called “Balkanization” and is exactly like what was done to the former Yugoslavia. This is the game plan behind the wars in Iraq and Syria.

    The plan was first articulated in the early 1980s by Israeli strategist Oded Yinon and was called “A Strategy for Israel in the Nineteen Eighties.”

    The “Yinon plan” originally appeared in Hebrew in KIVUNIM (Directions), A Journal for Judaism and Zionism; Issue No, 14–Winter, 5742, February 1982, Published by the World Zionist Organization, Jerusalem.

    As Israel Shahak wrote about the plan in the foreword to the English translation in 1982:

    The idea that all the Arab states should be broken down, by Israel, into small units, occurs again and again in Israeli strategic thinking. For example, Ze’ev Schiff, the military correspondent of Ha’aretz (and probably the most knowledgeable in Israel, on this topic) writes about the “best” that can happen for Israeli interests in Iraq: “The dissolution of Iraq into a Shi’ite state, a Sunni state and the separation of the Kurdish part” (Ha’aretz 6/2/1982). Actually, this aspect of the plan is very old.

  • Posted by OS

    Christopher Bollyn, there is a difference between a “plan” and an “observation”. The internal divisions in (Western-created) Arab states pre-existed the creation of Israel. That minority groups wield disproportionate power (e.g., Iraq, Syria) or are oppressed by a majority (e.g, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain) has nothing to do with Israel. Nor does the emergence of a more-violent-and-Islamic-than-thou entity like IS. It is debatable whether those internal divisions, or explicit battles, benefit Israel in any way. It would seem apparent that Israel is best off waiting until some kind of resolution has been reached, e.g., a power-sharing agreement (Yemen, for example), or outright defeat (like what Assad/Iran are trying to achieve in Syria).

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