Michael Weiss

Syrian air defense a paper tiger

A Turkish tank near the border with Syria.

If you want to make Brigadier General Akil Hashem laugh, quote a US official about Syria’s “formidable” air defense systems. Actually, that’ll also make him cry. “As a patriot, I am not happy about telling you this, but the West should know how this regime is a paper tiger,” he told me recently over lunch in central London. Hashem fought in three Syrian wars against Israel and helped train the men who have gone on to fill the upper echelons of Bashar al-Assad’s armed forces. Up until recently, he kept in touch with some active-duty Syrian officers even while reprehending them for their loyalty to a mass murderer.

“In 1982,” Hashem said, “19 batteries of our 20 tank batteries—each battery consisting of five tanks and each tank equipped with three SAM-6 missiles—were wiped out in a single strike by surface-to-surface Israeli missiles.” Syrian aircraft fared no better. “Ninety-three of our air fighters were shot down in a two-hour air battle with the Israelis. No Israeli planes were shot down. This happened over the Beqaa Valley. I was there. I was in Lebanon at the time and I witnessed everything. So this is not rumor, this is fact.”

Despite decades of technological innovations in the Israeli and Western militaries, Syria still relies heavily on Soviet-era relics to defend itself. This is especially true in the north of the country. The regime chose to concentrate its newer hardware in the west and south of Syria to guard against you-know-who, not that that’s worked particularly well either: Israeli jets have penetrated Syrian airspace three times in the last few decades without incurring any damage to their planes. The 2007 sortie powdered a nuclear reactor in Deir Ezzour.

Hashem is the most outspoken Syrian proponent of intervention, and he’s convinced that the arguments educed against it by the Obama administration amount to politically motivated excuse-making. (Curiously, this assessment is shared even by some in the Syrian opposition who are ideologically opposed to intervention, such as leftist Michel Kilo.) “I heard so many statements from high-ranking officials in the West, like [Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin] Dempsey, talking foolishly about the strength of the Syrian military, as if they don’t know anything about it.” He thinks that the US has purposefully overestimated the regime’s fighting capability and underestimated the opposition’s.

A partial no-fly zone, Hashem reckons, can now be imposed over Idleb and Aleppo provinces more easily because the rebels are already doing much of the heavy-lifting themselves. There are seven airbases in total in those two provinces, at least two of which—one in Taftanaz, one in Abu Duhur—have been raided in recent weeks, their materiel confiscated or destroyed. Even without surface-to-air missiles of their own, rebels have managed to shoot down or neutralize MiG warplanes and helicopters and blow up T-72 tanks; in the battle over the Abu Duhur airbase, they took out between 8 and 12 helicopters on the ground, and downed two more mid-flight. But their struggle is still David-and-Goliath while the regime can drop barrels of TNT onto civilian neighborhoods and its howitzers can shell entire cities into dust.

“One US aircraft carrier with 80 or 85 sophisticated air fighters, plus the Incirlik air base in Turkey, is enough to do the job,” Hashem said.

His envisaged no-fly zone would have a depth of about 120-kilometers from the Syrian-Turkish border. “You can control that entire area with air-to-air missiles from F16 or F18 fighter jets. These missiles have a range of 80 kilometers, so Western or Turkish aircraft would only need to enter 40 kilometers of Syrian airspace to maintain air supremacy.”

Anti-tank helicopters or anti-tank air-fighters, such as A-10s, could then patrol the border, along which Turkey has already stationed its own contingent of troops, artillery and anti-aircraft batteries following the downing of its F4 reconnaissance plane in June and the lethal cross-border shelling of the Turkish border town Akcakale last week.

A safe area, or no-go zone for regime ground forces and mobile artillery units, would follow from Western additions to this fortified border. The bulk of the Idleb and Aleppo countrysides have fallen into rebel hands. So has the main north-south highway that runs through Idleb, which is why the regime relies on the coastal highway as its resupply route for its forces in Aleppo. Turkish and Western intelligence agents would still be needed, however, to liaise with the rebels and provide better arms to vetted units, a process that might prove easier if more agents were actually inside the country rather than stationed in Turkey. (Unnamed CIA officials have complained to the Washington Post about the lack of personnel covering Syria.)

Could the rebels realistically take the fight to Damascus with limited assistance in the north?

Well, look at what they’ve already done in Damascus with no assistance. The Syrian insurgency’s lack of unity or organization shouldn’t be confused with its perceived lack of capability. The depth of rebel infiltration into the lion’s den of the regime has been extraordinary and telling against the claim that a partial no-fly zone in northern Syria would be analogous to the one imposed over northern Iraq in 1991, which took a decade and a full-scale Western invasion to bring to an end. With due respect to the Kurdish peshmerga, no Iraqi rebels were able to blow up Saddam’s high command in central Baghdad between 1991 and 2003. The stunning assassination of four members of the Assad regime’s “crisis management cell” in the Syrian capital last August—an operation that apparently left Bashar’s brother and Fourth Division commander Maher al-Assad severely maimed—suggests Syria’s rebels are already more advanced than their Libyan predecessors ever were. And rebel coordination is indeed improving, even if only at the local or regional levels.

“There were dozens of active rebel groups in each province back in April, but now just two or three groups in each province account for the vast majority of active rebels,” Joe Holliday, a former US military intelligence analyst now at the Institute for the Study of War, told me. With the notable exception of the largely inscrutable al-Farouq Brigade, which refuses to work with anyone else, these groups have begun to partner with provisional political councils. The Tawhid Brigade in Aleppo, for instance, runs prisons and courts for trying captured regime soldiers or shabiha. The result has been the outcropping of inchoate municipal governments, a phenomenon I witnessed for myself in the city of al-Bab in August.

“It depends on your objective,” Holliday said. “If it’s to ground the Syrian Air Force, that can be done with cruise missiles and stealth bombers. Destroying aircraft on the runways alone could have a huge impact on the regime’s ability to field air power.” By his count, the regime had 35 attack helicopters and 100 utility helicopters at the start of the conflict. “Helicopters are notoriously difficult to maintain, so it may be a stretch to assume that even half of that number was flight-ready.” (According to Syria war bloggers “Brown Moses” and James Miller, the rebels might have already destroyed as many as 20 copters throughout the country.) As for fixed-wing aircraft, Holliday said the regime had “no more than 350 combat-capable jets, a huge portion of which are designed for air-air combat, not for attacking ground targets. In fact, the regime has relied largely on its trainer jets to bombard Aleppo.”

Earlier this week, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said that the alliance was prepared to back Turkey militarily “if necessary” and that it had drawn up the appropriate contingency plans for intervention. The New York Times has also reported that the United States is leading a task force in Jordan to help the Jordanian military secure Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles, the deployment or mobilization of which was President Obama’s “red-line” for intervention—and never mind that US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced at a press conference recently that, whoops, the US had lost track of some of Syria’s chemical weapons.

With the UN Security Council permanently deadlocked, a refugee population now possibly at half a million, Russia’s unabated military support for the regime, and violence and political instability hemorrhaging out into every neighboring country, intervention in Syria seems inescapable. And the shibboleths, excuses and sublimated Assadist propaganda that have characterized the arguments against it seem less and less persuasive.

Michael Weiss is the Research Director of the Henry Jackson Society and a frequent commentator on the Middle East and Russia. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldweiss

A Turkish tank near the border with Syria. Turkey would be a key player in any international intervention against the Syrian regime. (AFP photo)

The rebels' struggle is still David-and-Goliath while the regime can drop barrels of TNT onto civilian neighborhoods and its howitzers can shell entire cities into dust.