Israel’s airstrikes against targets in Syria undercut U.S. military warnings about the risks of using American air power against forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad.
The attacks -- which haven’t been officially acknowledged by Israel -- add to evidence that Syria’s air defense system has been “substantially” degraded during two years of civil war, according to Jeffrey White, a defense fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Syria’s “sophisticated” air defenses have been cited by U.S. General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as a concern in assessing options for U.S. military intervention. Israel’s raids may increase pressure on President Barack Obama to go beyond helping arm the rebels -- an option now being considered -- to authorizing limited use of U.S. air power to help speed Assad’s fall.
“Those people making the argument that the Syrian air defense system is some kind of formidable barrier, their argument is weakened by the Israeli actions,” said White, a former Defense Intelligence Agency official who favors a no-fly zone and other U.S. military measures.
Enforcing areas where Syrian planes and helicopters would be subject to attack would be more difficult than Israel’s individual strikes, according to a Pentagon official who asked not to be named because he wasn’t authorized to speak publicly. A no-fly zone would require disabling Syria’s combat aircraft and its air defenses and establishing a continuing operation that includes the capability to rescue any downed pilot, the official said.
A no-fly zone “would take a major U.S. air effort to accomplish quickly,” according to Anthony Cordesman, a military analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “The U.S. might well take some losses if Syria fought back, and would have to have a sustained presence if Syria chose not to fight.”
Joshua Landis, who runs the Middle East studies program at the University of Oklahoma in Norman and opposes U.S. military intervention, said that once a no-fly zone is established Obama would likely face pressure to go further and launch air strikes against Assad’s forces on the ground.
Obama has been reluctant to have the U.S. drawn into the conflict, although he has said the use of chemical weapons by Assad’s regime would cross a “red line.” The administration has stepped up its review of options as it assesses intelligence that Assad’s forces may have used small amounts of the chemical weapon sarin against the opposition.
The United Nations yesterday failed to clear up conflicting claims about chemical weapons after a former war-crimes prosecutor said there were signs that rebels, not Assad forces, had used sarin gas. The UN Human Rights Council said a commission investigating violations in Syria “has not reached conclusive findings as to the use of chemical weapons in Syria by any parties to the conflict,” according to an e-mailed statement.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said last week no decision has been made on whether to help arm the rebels. The U.S. is providing non-lethal equipment to the groups as well as humanitarian aid.
Secretary of State John Kerry flew to Moscow for talks today on Syria and other issues, including steps to expand counterterrorism cooperation after the April 15 Boston Marathon bombings. Russia has opposed any U.S. intervention in Syria, and has joined China at the United Nations Security Council to block U.S.-led efforts to pressure Assad to quit.
Syria has threatened to retaliate against Israel after an airstrike on the outskirts of Damascus caused explosions that rocked the capital. A May 3 airstrike was also attributed to Israel. Israeli officials who weren’t named said the attacks were meant to prevent advanced Iranian weapons from reaching Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia, rather than to weaken the Assad regime, the Associated Press reported.
Christopher Harmer, a naval analyst at the Institute for the Study of War in Washington, said the Israeli raids demonstrate weaknesses in Syria’s air defenses. “It shows the Syrians are either incapable of defending their airspace against the Israelis or they’re unwilling,” he said.
Richard Murphy, a former U.S. ambassador to Syria and Saudi Arabia, said there’s little chance Assad can use Israel’s actions to gain support from Arab countries.
“There’s no audience in the region waiting to be rallied by Syria,” he said in a phone interview. Some Arab states, such as Saudi Arabia, oppose Assad, and others, such as Egypt, aren’t interested in increasing tensions with Israel, he said.
The administration has looked at a no-fly zone as a form of intervention that would draw on superior U.S. capabilities without putting American troops on the ground and, by giving the opposition areas to operate free from government air assaults, reduce the civilian toll in a civil war that has claimed more than 70,000 lives.
While the Syrian air force uses helicopters and light aircraft to strike rebel targets, there’s no evidence it has flown its larger Soviet-era MiG fighters in the past two years, said Harmer.
U.S. military officials such as Dempsey have questioned the value of a no-fly zone. Only about 10 percent of the casualties among the Syrian opposition are due to the use of air power by Assad’s forces, Dempsey told reporters April 30. The rest are from direct fire or artillery, he said.
“So the question then becomes, you know, if you eliminate one capability of a potential adversary, will you be inclined to find yourself in a position to be asked to do more against the rest?” he said.
The U.S. military leadership has reason to be concerned it will find itself on a slippery slope after the experience of the United Nations-authorized no-fly zone during the uprising against Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi, said Landis.
“In Libya, the no-fly zone turned into the no-Qaddafi zone in one short day because, if you go in for humanitarian reasons, you have to go kill the source of the killing -- which is the evil dictator,” he said.
The Syrian air defense system is five times more extensive than was Libya’s, said Dempsey, including equipment designed to be effective at higher altitudes and longer ranges.
“The United States military has the capability to defeat that system, but it would be a greater challenge, take longer and require more resources,” he said.
Cordesman said it isn’t clear whether Syria tried to counter Israeli air force attacks.
“It is possible that the Syrian air force has rules of engagement that preclude the use of fighter aircraft for anything other than all-out war, given the massive losses they suffered fighting” the Israeli air force in 1982, he said in a paper yesterday on Syrian air defenses.