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Syria is not Libya. Bashar Assad’s troops are well armed, and his ground forces are waging successful campaigns against rebel forces across the country. But eliminating Assad’s ability to take to the air and tilting the balance of power in favor of anti-Assad rebels—as the United States and its allies did with the fighters who eventually overthrew Moammar Gadhafi—is both achievable and advisable.
The Syrian air force is capable of aerial bombardment, close air support to ground troops, aerial resupply and delivery of chemical weapons. Assad has used all those capabilities over the past two years to fight the rebels and to kill tens of thousands of civilians. But in the past year, the rebels—armed with heavy weapons and possibly with shoulder-fired Stinger missiles—have become more proficient at shooting down helicopters, reportedly as many as 20 so far.
What is keeping Assad in power is his use of fighter planes. If the U.S. wants to break the military stalemate, force Assad into political concessions or aid in his ouster, eliminating his air power should be the first order of business.
The Assad regime’s fighter aircraft are also being used to take out civilians in what might be labeled a reverse-counterinsurgency strategy. If counterinsurgency is predicated on the security of the civilian population, then the reverse strategy penalizes civilians and ensures that they are forced to choose between their hope for freedom or the risk of death. Indiscriminately killing civilians is working well for Assad, and the linchpin of his strategy is his regime’s air power.
To successfully target Assad’s air power, one option is to outfit moderate rebel units vetted by the CIA with man-portable antiaircraft missiles, otherwise known as Manpads. Providing more moderate rebels with Manpads is a reasonable choice, though unlikely to be decisive because time is on Assad’s side. There is also a risk that the weapons could be diverted to al Qaeda-related groups. Despite that risk, however, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former CIA Director David Petraeus recommended this strategy last summer.
A cleaner and more decisive option is to strike Syrian aircraft and the regime’s key airfields through which Iranian and Russian weapons are flowing to government forces. If American forces use standoff cruise missiles and B-2 stealth bombers for these strikes, they will be out of the enemy’s reach.
The airfields are Assad’s lifeline of support from Iran and Russia, and without them he’s in real trouble. Syria’s air force will be severely degraded if the U.S. pursues this option, but Syrian planes won’t be entirely grounded because airfields can be repaired. As a result, these operations would need to be sustained for a period of time to preclude repairs.
Then there’s the oft-recommended option of establishing a no-fly zone over Syria. It’s here where we hear the loudest objections from Syria’s allies and others opposed to Western involvement in the conflict. Because the Syrian military is equipped with an array of relatively sophisticated air-defense systems, critics of the no-fly zone strategy suggest that U.S. forces would be in harm’s way.
The truth is that these air-defense systems look more impressive on paper than they do in real life. After all, the Israelis have been able to repeatedly penetrate Syrian air space without consequence. The Soviet systems that the regime has are complicated and require intensive maintenance and training. They would be little match for the U.S.
The Russian S300 surface-to-air defense system that news reports indicate is being delivered to Syria would represent a substantial upgrade to Syrian air defense system. Still, the U.S. has the capacity to destroy this system with relative ease using Tomahawk missiles; even small-arms fire would render it almost useless.
Ultimately, the achievability question is straightforward: Taking on Assad’s air assets is not an impossibly heavy lift for the U.S., particularly if we are able to enlist support from NATO and the Arab League. Limited operations would render the antiaircraft-system matter moot.
It is the advisability question that is thornier, lending itself to more subjective analysis about the unknowns of a rebel victory and Assad’s (as well as Iran’s and Hezbollah’s) reaction to an escalation. Here are the facts we do know: Right now, countless Syrian innocents are being murdered weekly. Chemical weapons are being used by the regime. Yes, certain factions among the rebels are affiliated with al Qaeda, but it is also true that their allegiance has cost them support among the Syrian civilian population in the months since it was announced.
Play this out: Assad wins and Iran’s most important Arab alliance is preserved, with terrorist groups like Hezbollah and Palestinian Islamic Jihad back on the gravy train of international terrorism. American credibility is shot. Or, the conflict continues, and the spillover into Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, Iran and Turkey escalates. Is conflict between Israel and Iran over Syria a ridiculous notion? How about the fall of the Jordanian king? More fighting between al Qaeda allies and Hezbollah in Lebanon? The collapse of Iraq? None of our business? Never going to draw us in? Remember, a return to the status quo ante is out of the question.
Arming the right rebels with antiaircraft weapons and severely degrading Assad’s air power with limited airstrikes is achievable without boots on the ground and minimal risk to aircrews. If the U.S. pursues this strategy, moderates among the rebels will be strengthened, Syrian civilian casualties are likely to be reduced (though not eliminated) and finally, after two long years, Assad will be on notice. This option leaves room for escalation to the no-fly zone, and for a further escalation to attacks on Assad’s ground forces if he uses chemical weapons again or tries to transfer them to America’s enemies.
The Syrian people are not asking us to fight for them. They’re asking us to help them fight for themselves. The question for President Barack Obama is not our capacity to join that fight. It is the will.
Gen. Keane, a former vice chief of staff of the U.S. Army, is the chairman of the Institute for the Study of War. Ms. Pletka is the vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.
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