Steven A. Cook

From the Potomac to the Euphrates

Cook examines developments in the Middle East and their resonance in Washington.

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Syria: Seeing the Forest from the Scuds

by Steven A. Cook
April 29, 2013

Missiles seen at a Syrian air defense base in after Free Syrian Army fighters seized the base, in eastern Ghouta, on the eastern edge of Damascus (Muhammad Al-Jazari/Courtesy Reuters).


Since I first broached the subject of intervention in Syria sixteen months ago, I have had episodic debates with various former military officers and defense intellectuals concerning the wisdom of a more robust approach to the insurrection that began against Bashar al Assad in March 2011.  The most recent installment came last Friday in response to the following tweet:

The tweet itself was prompted by a National Public Radio story on Syria in which the correspondent gravely intoned, “Syria’s formidable air defense system.”  I have heard this over and over again in one form or another and it has always struck me as odd.  Why does it seem that Israel’s air force can penetrate Syria’s alleged superior air defense network at will and with impunity, but whenever the idea of using American and allied air forces to help the rebellion comes up, the Syrians are 10 feet tall?

My question on Twitter was serious, but I was also attempting to draw my sometimes interlocutors Peter J. Munson (@peterjmunson) and Andrew Exum (@abumuqawama) into another discussion.  Perhaps having had enough of me they didn’t bite or didn’t see my tweet, but I did have an extended repartee with Dan Trombly (@stcolumbia) and Brian Haggerty (@brianhaggerty) over the issue.  Let me just start out by stipulating that both Exum and Munson have a perspective and gravitas on issues related to foreign interventions that is unique given their military service in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Trombly and Haggerty are civilians, but with strategic studies specialties.  I am neither a battlefield veteran nor a guns and trucks kid.  Still, just because I did not serve and someone had to tell me the difference between a Maverick missile and a Maverick does not disqualify me nor other civilian Middle East analysts from offering credible analyses of what can/should be done in Syria.

To date, the answers to my questions about Israel’s capability to penetrate Syrian airspace and American disinclination to do the same and more generally concerning intervention in Syria amount to the following:

1)  Israel’s brief incursions are different from the sustained campaign the United States—and presumably allies—would have to undertake to establish a no-fly zone (NFZ) in Syria.

2) Israel’s missions have been on the “periphery” of Syria and have never had to contend with the dense network of air defenses  in and around major population centers.

3) The Assad regime has placed air defenses within population centers, putting both Syrian civilians and American aviators at risk during any air campaign.

4) Intervention in Syria would be costly and detract from the U.S. military’s ability to conduct operations in other areas.

5) Syria is complicated and military intervention may not help the situation; in fact, it might make the situation for Syrians a good deal worse.

With the exception of the last, none of these claims is convincing either in part or whole.  It is true that enforcing a no-fly zone is an entirely different undertaking than Israel’s bombing of a Syria-based Islamic Jihad training camp in 2003, the destruction of Syria’s suspected nuclear facility in 2007, or high-speed overflights of Latakia intended—literally—to rattle Bashar al Assad in his summer palace in 2003 and 2006, but that does not mean the United States should not or cannot prevent Assad’s forces from flying.  When analysts and others first broached the idea of establishing a NFZ in Syria, they were told that, among other reasons, this was not a good idea because there was nothing to enforce.  Assad was not using aircraft to attack his own people.  That has not been true since at least the summer of 2012.

The second claim—that the Israelis have only penetrated along Syria’s “periphery”—does not ring true.  Is Latakia, where the Syrian president has a summer residence, the periphery?  It is also only 55 miles from Latakia to Tartus, where Russia maintains a naval base.  I don’t know, but I would bet that Syrians have put up air defenses in this area.  Once more, the periphery claim suggests Israeli pilots are somehow getting off easy.  Ask the Turks.  They lost the two crew members of an F4 Phantom II operating off the coast of Syria in June 2012.  Now, the Syrians may have gotten lucky or they may be pretty good at defending their airspace, but the record suggests the former.

It would be tough going for American pilots, hoping to avoid civilian casualties, if they were asked to establish and enforce a no-fly zone.  This type of operation entails destroying the Syrian air defenses.  Without being glib, complications and all it seems that Syrians are at far greater risk from the Assad regime and its supporters than from U.S. aircraft.  That said, it is a given that civilians will perish in the process of setting up a NFZ—one of the grave and unfortunate complications that Syria presents.

Then there is the claim that the United States cannot get involved in Syria because of other pressing international problems and the prospect of war in another theater.  I can understand why observers might advance this claim; it has been a long and costly decade in the Middle East. That said, the last time I checked, the U.S. armed forces were designed to fight on multiple fronts.

Before moving on, let’s get a few things clear:

  • Syria’s GDP is $65 billion; The United States’  is $15 trillion.
  • Syria spends $2.5 billion on defense; The United States spends $500 billion.
  • Syria officially has 600 combat aircraft, though it is not known how many can actually be deployed; The United States has a lot more.
  • Syria possesses five squadrons of attack helicopters; The United States has many more.

I recognize that raw numbers cannot always tell very much about capabilities.  The Israelis were outgunned in terms of the amount of planes and tanks they could bring to the battlefield in June 1967, but they nevertheless prevailed.  Still, given all the caveats one could possibly think of concerning the particularities of the Syrian “battle space,” the regime’s use of irregular soldiers, and terror, Assad is a military pipsqueak in comparison to the United States.  That is not suggesting that intervention in Syria will be a “cakewalk,” but that the United States’ capability to establish and enforce a no-fly zone in Syria should be beyond dispute.

If that is, indeed, the case (if it isn’t I want my taxpayer money back) then the real issue in Syria is both reason #5—military intervention might not attenuate the civil war or might make things worse and, I would add, the American people do not want to become involved in another Middle Eastern imbroglio.  Both are important arguments, though I would suggest that the second is the more compelling.

It is important to remember that there are no risk free policies.  If the United States is determined to stay out of Syria in any meaningful way, there are also grave moral and strategic consequences.  Many more Syrians are likely to die and leaders in the region will draw the conclusion that they can pursue malign policies with little cost.  I too am reluctant to see the United States militarily engaged in yet another Middle Eastern country, but I also do not want to live in a world where dictators can kill their own people with abandon, develop nuclear technology without fear of punishment, threaten to destabilize a region, and drive millions of their own people into the wretched conditions of refugees and displaced people.


Post a Comment 4 Comments

  • Posted by Jim Thompson

    There are no good choices here. However, Mr. Cook ends the argument with the real imperative: Will we allow bloodthirsty dictators to massacre their own citizens, because it might cost us a bit extra in taxes out of our next paycheck? We cannot sit and watch the carnage continue. I HATE the thought of more ME conflict, but we MUST do something – and Mr. Cook’s NFZ idea will be an important addition to our response.

  • Posted by ZT

    Apparently, Syria started to modernize their air defenses after 2007 and since then has there been any serious incursion by Israel ?

    From open sources on inernet:

    Assad and the Syrian Government were embarassed by the frequent Israeli incursions, especially the 2007 bombing of the nuclear facility. So decided , with Russian assistance, to modernize their air defenses.

    So the point 2 seems correct. Even in the recent bombing by Israel across the Syrian border, the Israeli planes did not enter Syrian airspace, but stayed in Lebanese airspace and used some tactical maneuvers to “lob” the bomb into Syria.

  • Posted by Bill Smith

    The US hasn’t imposed a NFZ over Syria because it doesn’t’ want to for many reasons – a perfectly legitimate course of action – not because it can’t due to the vaunted Syrian Air Defense system.

    A NFZ over Syria doesn’t require destruction of the Syrian air defense system – which, by the way, is much weaker than it was just a year or two ago. After all, the rebels have over run a number of its bases and the Israelis blew up part of it the other day. I also think it would be fair to say that Assad has had more important places to put his limited resources.

    An NFZ over Syria just requires thinking outside the box.
    Such an NFZ doesn’t even require manned aircraft over Syria. An NFZ could be enforced by an Aegis cruiser/destroyer standing off in the Mediterranean using SM-2s’ cued from a US AWACS also over the Mediterranean, the British base on Mount Olympos, Cyprus, US and NATO Patriot batteries already in Turkey, Israeli faculties on Mount Hermon or Israeli AWACS aircraft.

    The US and NATO Patriot batteries are already networked. The US and Israel have conducted a number of exercises where sensors were networked. Likely any British feeds have been long integrated into the NATO air defense picture.

    Most of this data is already being fed over military networks so outsiders wouldn’t know exactly where the cuing is coming from providing deniability to any Israeli provided data.

    The British airbase on Cyprus is sovereign British territory so they don’t need anyone else’s permission to operate aircraft or drones out of it. Thus the Aegis ship could be provided with air cover in the unlikely event Syria decided to relative in that direction. Or any fighters could possibly take a shot at any Syrian aircraft that attempted to operate close to the Mediterranean.

    An NFZ doesn’t have to cover the entire country, operate constantly or even down every Syrian aircraft or helicopter to be effective – particularly given how small a percentage of the Syrian Air Force is flying.

  • Posted by Alex

    Your argument asks and answers the wrong question; of course the U.S. has the military capability to impose a NFZ in Syria. The real question is whether the U.S. is willing to pay the costs of such an operation in exchange for the less than certain benefits. The decision whether to intervene militarily is a complex decision involving many factors, least of which is whether we have the pure capability to do so.

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