What Western Intervention in Syria Might Look Like

Western powers should be able to achieve air superiority over Syria, although its defenses are formidable.

Sailors prepare to launch an F/A-18E Super Hornet fighter jet aboard the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis on deployment in the Arabian Sea, October 29, 2011
Sailors prepare to launch an F/A-18E Super Hornet fighter jet aboard the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis on deployment in the Arabian Sea, October 29, 2011 (US Navy/Walter M. Wayman)

Britain, France and the United States are reportedly considering taking military action against Syria after its government allegedly used chemical weapons three years into a civil war that has claimed the lives of tens of thousands. What might such an intervention look like?

With the American public overwhelmingly opposed to military involvement in Syria — some 60 percent of those recently surveyed in a Reuters/Ipsol poll said they would rather the United States stayed out of the conflict altogether — a mission will likely be limited.

Lawmakers from both major parties also cautioned against more than airstrikes in television interviews on Sunday. Republican Bob Corker told Fox News Sunday, “I think we will respond in a surgical way,” and urged President Barack Obama to request Congress’ approval when it returns from recess early next month. Senator Jack Reed, a member of the president’s Democratic Party, specifically argued against taking unilateral action on CBS News’ morning talk show Face the Nation.

Russia also warned America against repeating the “mistakes of the past” on Sunday and urged it not to bypass the United Nations where it has the power to veto in the Security Council.

Any attack then will likely involve other powers such as France and the United Kingdom and prioritize disrupting Syria’s air defense. Air and missile strikes could be launched from airfields in Turkey, Britain’s bases on Cyprus and navy ships in the Mediterranean Sea.

The United States on Saturday decided to keep the guided-missile destroyer USS Mahan deployed to the Eastern Mediterranean when it was due to return to its home port in Norfolk, Virginia, bringing the total number of warships in the area up to four when normally only three ships are present there.

Last year’s downing of a Turkish reconnaissance jet near Syria’s border demonstrated that the country’s air defense capabilities are not to be underestimated. General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the American Joint Chiefs of Staff, pointed out earlier in the year that Syria has “a very sophisticated, integrated air defense system” and therefore intervention would be “a different challenge” from Libya where NATO allies bombed regime assets in 2011 in aid of a rebellion against that country’s strongman, Muammar Gaddafi.

Syria has invested in upgrading its 1970s era air defense capabilities since Israel attacked a suspected nuclear facility outside the eastern city of Deir ez-Zor in 2007, wrote John Reed in Foreign Policy last year, “buying at least 36 SA-22 mobile air defense systems from Russia.”

The SA-22, called Pantsir-S1 by Russia, comes equipped with its own target acquisition and tracking radars, along with twelve medium range missiles. This system might have been used to shoot down the Turkish plane.

Syria has also bought Russian long range S-300 missiles but there is no evidence that they have arrived in Syria yet. Russian officials estimate their earliest delivery date late this year.

Syria’s air defenses will pose a challenge to an offensive nevertheless and casualties should not be ruled out. The country also boasts a sizable air force. Many planes are of vintage Soviet make, the most advanced being the MiG-29 Fulcrum which entered service in 1983. It was designed as an air superiority jet to be used against the American F-15 and F-16 fighters but did not perform well against its Western counterparts in Iraqi and Yugoslavian service.

The USS Nimitz and Harry S. Truman aircraft carriers and strike groups are currently deployed to the Persian Gulf region. Both carry up to ninety aircraft, mainly F/A-18F Super Hornets, and helicopters. The French carrier Charles de Gaulle can carry up to forty planes. The Turkish Air Force is equipped with 240 F-16 fighter jets and almost three hundred older F-4s and F-5s.

Once the Western allies have achieved aerial superiority, they can enforce a no-fly zone as they did over Libya, preventing Syria from deploying warplanes and helicopter gunships. Dutch and German Patriot air defense systems are already deployed to Turkey’s southern border and could support such a mission although their reach into Syria is limited.

A ground invasion is unlikely but if the allies decided to expand the war, Turkey’s involvement would be critical to enable American and Turkish armor and mechanized divisions to enter Syria from the north, perhaps supported by a marine landing in the northwest, the heartland of President Bashar Assad’s Alawite sect and a regime stronghold where the Russians also maintain a naval facility at Tartus.

The Syrian army operates several thousands of tanks, the majority of which are over fifty years old. The most potent battle tank in the Syrian arsenal is the 1970s Soviet-made T-72. “For all this tank was feared when it was first deployed in the late 1970s,” wrote Reed, “the ones Iraq fielded during Operation Desert Storm were soundly defeated by American M1A1 Abrams tanks.”

Like Syria, Turkey operates hundreds of 1950s and 1960s era battle tanks. Its most modern system is the 1980s German Leopard 2A4 which is superior to the T-72. More than three hundred are in Turkish service.

A ground war could very well resemble the 2003 invasion of Iraq which saw just three weeks of major combat operations and 172 killed on the side of the Western coalition. Of course, some 265,000 Western troops were deployed in the invasion, more than are likely to be sent into Syria, but they did not face an enemy that had been weakened by more than two years of civil war, nor did they have strong local support except from Kurdish militias in the north. America and its allies would be unlikely to launch a ground invasion of Syria unless it was coordinated with rebels on the ground.

Western casualties could mount considerably if Assad deploys chemical weapons — the very reason military intervention is contemplated now. Syria is estimated to possess hundreds of tons of mustard gas and large stockpiles of sarin gas, possibly VX, both of which are nerve agents. These weapons can be fired from even antiquated artillery as well aircraft and missiles.