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The United States is not eager to launch an air campaign against the Syrian regime that would be similar to the NATO campaign in Libya even though numerous U.S. lawmakers have called for such a campaign. Not only did Libya not have the formidable air defense systems that Russia has provided to Syria, but Syria's rebels have not been able to control large areas of territory. These factors would complicate any air campaign against the al Assad regime, but Washington's reluctance to get involved militarily is based on the fear that it could slip into a much messier conflict than it did in Libya.
Amid increasing calls from some U.S. lawmakers for an air campaign against the Syrian regime, the U.S. administration appears to be making a concerted effort to explain to the public why this is not a preferred course of action. Beyond the significant regional implications of such an action, Washington does not want to get involved in a conflict with Syria that likely would pose credible threats to U.S. air forces and risk involving ground forces as well.
The rationale in Washington
When U.S. Central Command chief Gen. James Mattis briefed the U.S. Senate Armed
Services Committee on Syria on March 6, his overarching message was that any
military action in the country would not be easy. Mattis noted that the lack of any
safe zones in Syria would mean deploying a significant number of ground troops to
create such zones and warned that the United States believes the Syrian government
possesses chemical and biological weapons. When asked about the possibility of
imposing a no-fly zone in Syria, as NATO forces did in Libya, Mattis warned of the
potential dangers posed by the advanced air defense systems Syria has received from
Mattis' remarks were a subtle rebuttal to calls made in recent days by Sen. John
McCain, one of the committee leaders, to launch airstrikes in Syria. On the same day
as Mattis' briefing, Foreign Policy published an article citing two anonymous Obama
administration officials discussing what the White House is planning for the next
phase in the Syrian conflict. One official referred to the same danger posed by
Russian-supplied air defense systems, adding that a recent Russian shipment to Syria
contained large amounts of advanced anti-aircraft missile systems, presumably
intended to defend Syria should the conflict become international.
Washington seeks to dampen the expectation that it intends to do in Syria what it
did in Libya. An air campaign is not on the horizon, and the United States is also
hesitant to publicize any of its attempts to arm the opposition, though remarks from
the officials cited by Foreign Policy seem to indicate that Washington is giving
other countries (likely Saudi Arabia and Qatar) approval to do so. Public
discussions of arming the opposition forces are, however, more for public relations
to show that something is being done to assist an opposition under siege. If the
United States were actively engaged in such activities, it would manage the
Syria's Defenses Compared To Libya's
The United States has a strategic interest in seeing the fall of the al Assad regime
because of the effect it would have on Iran's influence in the Levant. Aside from
levying sanctions and a public acquiescence to other countries sending in weapons,
Washington does not appear to be publicly doing much to hasten al Assad's downfall.
The United States is wary of entering the fray due to its fears that it would get
dragged into a much messier conflict than those calling for an air campaign are
anticipating. Pointing to the potential dangers posed by Syria's air defense network
is one way of discouraging calls for military intervention.
This is not to say that the Syrian Air Defense Command (ADC) is not formidable,
especially in comparison to what NATO forces went up against in Libya. With an
estimated 54,000 personnel, it is twice the size of former Libyan leader Moammar
Gadhafi's air force and air defense command combined at the start of the NATO
campaign. Syria's ADC consists of the 24th and 26th anti-aircraft divisions
comprising thousands of anti-aircraft guns and more than 130 surface-to-air missile
(SAM) batteries. The bulk of Syria's ADC SAM weaponry is the SA-2, SA-3, SA-5, SA-6,
and SA-8 SAM systems that were also operated by Gadhafi's forces. However, the
Syrians operate these systems in far greater numbers, have devoted significant
resources to the maintenance and upgrade of these missile batteries and have also
successfully deployed their SAM systems in a dense and overlapping layout that would
complicate potential Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses operations.
Though also a Russian ally, Gadhafi did not have the more advanced Russian air
defense systems that the al Assad regime possesses. For instance, Iran reportedly
financed Syria's acquisition of 50 SA-22 systems first delivered in 2007 -- 10 of
which allegedly ended up in Iranian hands. The Syrians are also thought to operate
several SA-11 systems, which the Libyans did not have. Furthermore, reports emerged
in November 2011 that the Russians upgraded numerous Syrian radar sites and
transferred a number of advanced S-300 systems to Syria and that a Russian naval
mission to Syria that month also served to transport several Russian missile
technicians who were to assist the Syrians in operating the S-300s.
Syria's defenses against an air campaign are not restricted to the ground. Its air
force can contribute dozens of fighter aircraft and interceptors, the most advanced
of which are the MiG-25 and MiG-29. But while the Syrian air force is both
quantitatively and qualitatively superior to Gadhafi's air force, which was just
starting to re-equip and modernize itself after years of sanctions, it has neither
played a meaningful role in managing the unrest in the country nor would it play a
meaningful role in defending the country from an air campaign.
Perhaps the biggest difference between Libya and Syria is that the Syrian rebels
have not yet been able to hold significant territory. This matters not just for
their ability to have safe areas from which to launch attacks, but also for the air
defense network's ability to function properly. Air defense systems typically are
designed to provide cover through overlapping areas of coverage. When eastern Libya
fell into rebel hands early on during the revolution, that overlap was severely
damaged, which in turn degraded the Gadhafi regime's overall air defense network.
The Syrians are not facing this difficulty.
A Feb. 28 CNN report said that the Pentagon had drawn up detailed plans for military
action against the Syrian regime. The U.S. military indeed has updated its order of
battle (orbat) for Syria in preparation for any contingency operations, and this
work allegedly produced the best orbat the United States has had on Syria since
2001. However, contingency plans exist for numerous countries with which war is
unlikely. The situation in Syria -- whether through the loss of territory, massive
defections from the regime or the loss of Russian support -- will have to change
before Washington implements any of the plans it has prepared.