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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Degrading Bashar’s Air Power is Possible

by Elliott Abrams
August 1, 2013


Is there anything the United States can do to slow or stop the recent advances being made by Bashar al-Assad’s forces in Syria, who are getting valuable help from Iranian and Hezbollah troops?

Unfortunately, the message from the Obama administration and from the Pentagon is “no.” From those sources we hear that the only military options are hopelessly expensive and dangerous. CJCS chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey once said 700 sorties would be needed before we even start, to suppress Syrian air defenses, and billions of dollars would be spent. Sen. John McCain has rightly excoriated Gen. Dempsey and the others who are taking this misleading line.

Now we have an expert, and balanced, study of  the military option that makes the most sense: not a no-fly zone but a one-time strike at Bashar’s quite limited air power. The study was by the the Institute for the Study of War, and is found here.

A brief summary: three Naval surface ships, and 100 aircraft, launching air to ground to ship to ground missiles and never entering Syrian airspace, could very seriously degrade the regime’s air power.

Here is McCain’s summary:

“Specifically, the ISW study reports that Assad’s forces are only flying a maximum of 100 operational strike aircraft at present, an estimate that ISW concedes is likely very generous to the Assad regime. The real figure, they maintain, is more likely around 50. What’s more, these aircraft are only being flown out of 6 primary airfields, with an additional 12 secondary airfields playing a supporting role. What this means is that the real-world military problem of how to significantly degrade Assad’s air power is very manageable – again, as I and others have maintained.

“ISW calculates that U.S. and allied forces could significantly degrade Assad’s air power using stand-off weapons that would not require one of our pilots to enter Syrian airspace or confront one Syrian air defense system. With a limited number of these precision strikes against each of the Assad’s eight primary airfields, we could crater their runways, destroy their fuel and maintenance capabilities, knock out key command and control, and destroy a significant portion of their aircraft on the ground. The ISW study estimates that this limited intervention could be achieved in one day and would involve a total of 3 Navy surface ships and 24 strike aircraft, each deploying a limited number of precision guided munitions – all fired from outside of Syria, without ever confronting Syrian air defenses.”

It would be useful for both the House and Senate Armed Services Committees to review the ISW study and to ask the Pentagon to respond to it. For if the United States does not act, Iran’s gamble in sending an expeditionary force to Syria will have paid off–with extremely dangerous effects in the entire region.

Post a Comment 6 Comments

  • Posted by Dean Smallwood

    Good luck ! Obama still thinks “The Levant” is a guy named Oscar who plays the piano .

  • Posted by Ashley Froherin

    I see two main problems with this post’s argument.

    One: It does not address whether degrading the regime’s air power would significantly reduce the government’s killing power, presumably the reason for intervening. How much of the regime’s military gains – and killing of non-combatants – is done through or enabled by its use of airpower? Don’t look to this post for answers.

    Indeed, Senator McCain’s remark, quoted above, (that “the ISW study reports that Assad’s forces are only flying a maximum of 100 operational strike aircraft at present, an estimate that ISW concedes is likely very generous to the Assad regime. The real figure, they maintain, is more likely around 50.”) could be interpreted to imply that degrading Assad’s airpower will not significantly reduce the government’s battlefield effectiveness.

    Point Two: Dr. Abrams also does not address the possibility/probability that engaging in kinetic operations against Assad’s air power assets could drag the US into deeper involvement in Syria, a pull that would only be stronger if the regime continues to achieve military successes after its airpower has been degraded.

    Certainly, the Administration and Pentagon have highlighted (and perhaps exaggerated, some would argue) the costs of intervening in Syria to justify taking a more measured approach to intervening there. However, treating whether the US should intervene further in Syria as largely a function of whether doing so is technically feasible and not excessively costly, as well as ignoring the two points I’ve raised here – and many others have also raised elsewhere – clouds more of the issue than it clarifies.

  • Posted by Clive Lindley

    Is this proposition of destroying Syrian airpower advanced in order to: a) assist the overthrow of the Assad government for the benefit of the miscellaneous Sunni rebels; or b) as being in the interests of Israel by reducing the armed forces of a onetime adversary and thus the balance of power in the region?
    Does it mean that Israel is now ‘off the fence’ and favours replacing the ‘known known,’ stable and quantifiable Baath of the Assads, in favour of having on their border an unknown, perhaps theocratic government of the myriad of jihadis, and those army deserters that make up the FSA?
    Is there some logic here that escapes me?

  • Posted by Elliott Abrams

    The goal is to advance American interests by preventing a military victory for the Assad regime, Iran, and Hezbollah

  • Posted by Coogan's Bluff

    Could this be accomplished simultaneously with an American attack on Iran? Would Russia really do anything but huff and puff?

  • Posted by J Eisenberg

    There are several options to deal with the tripartite alliance of Tehran-Damascus-Hezbollah, some may require enormous resources and time, and some don’t, yet the outcomes of some others remain to be seen based on a trial-and-error strategy that is not exorbitantly high in cost and risk.
    The Muslim world is currently polarized to the extreme between Sunnis and Twelverist Shi’ites. The overthrow of Saddam Hussein, who was the bulwark against Tehran’s expansionism, which was a grave blunder, provided a natural corridor between Tehran and the Levant. The current Shi’ite theocratic establishment in Baghdad is allied with this alliance, but ultimately is indebted to the US and its allies for removing their nemesis Saddam. Changing the current chess game plan to empower the anti-Shi’ite Sunnis is a valuable option to deter Baghdad from supporting the alliance, in addition to other harsh coercive instruments. This, while destabilizing Iraq on the short -run, will reduce Iran’s influence in Iraq and, by extension, Syria. The Gulf allies will be more than happy to eliminate the Shi’ite threat from Baghdad and will commit enormous sums of money, weaponry, and manpower to fight the Shi’ites. Iraq’s Western Sunni-dominated provinces will aid the anti-Bashar revolt as well. Hezbollah is diverting its attention to crushing the anti-Assad internal revolt. The US and its allies must strengthen its support by several folds to the Syrian rebels.
    Bombing Iran should be a last resort, and the ayatollahs will succumb to a painful military campaign. They are not jihadists. Furthermore, a project to internally destabilize Iran should be seriously considered.
    There should be a multi-lateral approach to deal with the tripartite alliance, and their defeat is achievable, and the Sino-Russian bloc will not be able to impede this, directly or indirectly. The US has committed grave blunders and part of the solution requires rectifying certain mistakes and not alienate its current and potential allies in the Gulf and the wider Arab/Muslim worlds

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