Early in the summer of 2012, a number of international observers got very worked up about Russia’s plan to dispatch half a dozen warships to the eastern Mediterranean. It sounded like some sort of escalation of an already awful situation, and even the most optimistic analyses noted that having a bunch of old, leaky Russian ships in an active war zone clearly was not ideal. Read More
Lebanon is one of the few Middle Eastern countries left that hasn’t been thrown into turmoil by the “Arab Spring.”
But with Syria next door, that may not last long.
Lebanon’s northern urban hub, Tripoli, has long been on the edge of stability. But now that it’s both a destination for Syrian refugees and potentially a rear base for Syrian rebels it has fallen into tit-for-tat killings and urban warfare.
On Monday last week, the city was quiet with tension, and cars were backed up as far as the eye could see at military checkpoints.
At the Citadel, a formidable medieval fort that is normally one of Tripoli’s biggest tourist destinations, there was hardly a foreign soul to be seen. Asked why attendance was so light, the government ticket-seller there mumbled, “Syria.”
In the three days following, according to press reports, at least 10 people were killed— most gunned down by snipers on the aptly named Syria Street, which divides a Sunni – Muslim neighborhood from an Alawite one.
In July, Syria’s Foreign Minister Walid Mullalem declared that Syria’s stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons would go unused in its civil war – unless a foreign power chose to intervene. The threat constituted a rare confirmation of the regime’s unconventional arsenal. The declaration raised serious concerns about U.S. policies in the event the regime did use its chemical or biological weapons. President Obama stated this would constitute a “red line” with “enormous consequences” that would alter calculations for military actions.
Given the various risks concerned with the proliferation or use of unconventional weapons, particularly chemical weapons, understanding the scope and requirements of potential military missions is essential. The first major consideration is whether U.S. and potential allied military strikes would focus on destroying, deterring, or securing Syrian weapons stocks. While a deterrent threat can be made without any military deployment, destroying Syrian weapons of mass destruction (WMD) would require airstrikes and special operations teams. A mission to secure Syria’s WMDs would likely be the most costly and dangerous of all, as it would likely involve tens of thousands of foreign ground troops, perhaps as many as 75,000, according to at least one press report.
A mission to destroy Syrian chemical weapons stocks could perform a preventive, preemptive or mitigating measure. Effectively degrading the entire arsenal would likely require an extremely wide target set. Syria has roughly 50 sites involved in manufacturing or storing chemical weapons. Its arsenal consists of G and V-series nerve agents, which block neurotransmitters, causing convulsions and death through loss of respiratory control, as well as blistering agents, whose chemical burns restrict respiration and form large, painful blisters on the skin. Both are absorbable through the lungs or skin, requiring a full body suit for adequate protection. Between Syria’s VX, Sarin, and Tabun nerve agents, and its mustard gas blistering agents, this totals to several hundred tons of chemical agents stockpiled for combat use.
As the Syrian civil war escalates and expands, policy makers are increasingly examining proposals to patrol “safe,” “liberated,” or “buffer zones” with military aircraft. Creating safe zones, Turkish officials have argued, could relieve human suffering and hasten the fall of the Assad regime without a more costly direct intervention. Ubiquitous in Western interventions since Operation Provide Comfort in postwar Iraq, and infamous in the Balkan wars of the mid-1990s, safe zones once again appear a straightforward solution to an intractable conflict. Yet the strategic and logistical details present serious challenges. Despite the relatively easy execution of a safe zone around Benghazi in Libya, a comparable effort to protect besieged cities in Syria would be much more costly and difficult.
A previous post outlined the significant aerial and maritime demands for creating a no-fly zone, which would be a prerequisite to creating a safe zone over any part of Syria. Inadequate suppression of enemy air defense (SEAD) would be problematic enough for air superiority fighters enforcing a no-fly zone, but would be even more threatening for aircraft performing ground interdiction strikes.
Despite the prominence of attack helicopters and combat jets in discussions of the Syrian conflict, destroying Syrian air power is unlikely to be either decisive overall or sufficient to defend safe zones.
The success of the Libyan air intervention is a historical anomaly. In 1993, NATO’s Deny Flight no-fly zone over Bosnia failed to deter ground forces from attacking designated safe areas, eventually requiring ground bombardment and, more importantly, a massive Croatian ground offensive to defeat Serbian forces. In Iraq after the Gulf War, no-fly zones and years of punitive bombardments did not dissuade Saddam Hussein from repeatedly launching ground attacks into Shia and Kurdish areas. In Libya, it was rapidly obvious that destroying the Libyan ground threat to Benghazi, not simply its air force, was necessary to defend safe zones.
A Libya-style military intervention in Syria could take up to six times as many combat aircraft as last year’s Operation Odyssey Dawn, according to a recent analysis from Massachusetts Institute of Technology.The analysis comes as calls are increasing to intervene in the escalating civil war in Syria.
When Odyssey Dawn began in March 2011, it appeared to hail a new model for military interventions. The relatively swift, painless and low-cost application of offshore and aerial power against a hostile regime to protect a rising hub of Libyan resistance in Benghazi began the military unraveling of the Gadhafi regime. Today, as Syria’s own civil war intensifies and officials such as Senators Lindsey Graham, John McCain, and Joe Lieberman call for military action, might another aerial and offshore campaign effectively establish a haven for the Syrian opposition and topple the Syrian government?
Brian Haggerty, doctoral candidate at MIT, recently released an extensive open-source analysis of what an aerial campaign to suppress Syrian air defenses and establish a safe zone would entail. While the operation is feasible, mitigating its significant risks would require a major campaign—one requiring at least 191 strike aircraft, at least six times the number of comparable aircraft in the opening phase of Odyssey Dawn, and perhaps several times more bombers and cruise missiles.
Discerning the capability of Syria’s integrated air defense system (IADS) is critical to that question. American officials, such as General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, stress the sophistication of Syria’s IADS relative to other countries in the region and particularly in comparison with Libya. Syria has faced American air power before, while the embarrassments of Israel defeating of its air force in the 1982 Lebanon War and destroying a Syrian nuclear reactor in 2007 left it acutely aware of the need to deter and defeat hostile air power.
In late June, Russians reportedly dispatched two large landing ships full of marines to their naval base in Tartus, Syria. However one of the ships at the center of the immediate media firestorm never left port and the other executed a normal training mission in the Black Sea before quietly returning to base a few days later. Russia is not above meddling in the internal affairs of other countries if it thinks it can get away with it, but escalating the Syrian conflict clearly was not in Russia’s national interest and was flatly contrary to all of its previous diplomatic activity.
Now less than a day after Russia allegedly decided to stop delivering arms to Syria until the situation calms down, media reports Tuesday said Russia is sending a flotilla of ships drawn from the Baltic, Northern, and Black Sea fleets to Syria. The move that would represent a dramatic change in tone from the past year, when continued arms sales to the Assad regime were considered sacrosanct, and while negotiations were being held in Moscow between the Russian government and members of the anti-Assad Syrian National Council.
Russian sources indicate the following ships are part of the group that is heading towards Syria: the destroyer Admiral Chabanenko, the frigates Yaroslav Mudry and Smetlivy (“sharp” or “keen-witted”), and three large landing craft carrying a contingent of marines (the names of those ships have not been mentioned in any reporting to date). It is worth noting that the landing craft in question, while unidentified, are clearly not the landing craft from the Black Sea Fleet that were at the center of the controversy in late June, but three different ships, from the Northern Fleet.
The media reports on the Russian fleet heading toward Syria have all originated with an Interfax story that quoted an unnamed)“military-diplomatic source” with knowledge of the situation. On this particular issue Interfax doesn’t have the best track record as it was the original “source” for the non-story in late June. Smetlivy is based in the Black Sea and if it is heading to Syria it will have to pass through the Bosporus sometime in the next few days. Until then, given past history and the strangely convenient timing of the announcement it probably is wise to remain skeptical.
By American standards this task force is not particularly impressive. By the greatly diminished standards of Russian naval operations, however, this is a significant concentration of ships. Two, Admiral Chabanenko and the Yaroslav Mudry, are among the newest and most capable members of the Russian fleet, coming into service in 1999 and 2009 respectively. Smetlivy, on the other hand, is more than 40 years old.
The precise mission of this Russian flotilla is unclear — assuming the flotilla is heading for Syria and isn’t a crude invention of bureaucratic infighting. Most of the ships will take around three months to reach Syria because they’re leaving from Severomorsk in Russia’s far north and face an extremely lengthy and circuitous route. Mudry will also take several weeks to reach Syria as it is being dispatched from the Russian naval base in the Baltic. The official line from Interfax’s unidentified source is that it is all a training exercise that is not in any way connected with the ongoing violence in Syria: the ships in question need to practice all of the tasks associated ferrying marines a lengthy distance. Some defense experts on Russia have speculated that the landing craft are carrying valuable military cargo, perhaps refurbished MI-25 helicopters. Other experts have speculated that the landing ships aren’t carrying any cargo but will instead be used to evacuate Russian citizens and military personnel, or even embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his close associates.
While such speculation is interesting, considering how long it is going to take the landing ships to reach Syria it is unlikely that they’re on an urgent and time-sensitive mission. If the Russians were planning an evacuation by sea they would use ships from the Black Sea Fleet which can be in Syria in a matter of days, not ships that are many weeks of hard steaming away. Assuming that all of the ships in question are in fact heading to Syria, it is far more likely that the Russians are trying to show the flag and underline their continued interest in the country. Particularly after taking two steps, that are clearly anti-Assad in nature, meeting with the Syrian National Council and cutting off arms shipments Russia needs to avoid giving the impression that it is overly weak and conciliatory.
It is possible to say what this flotilla is not: a serious attempt to intervene on behalf of Bashar al-Assad and his swiftly destabilizing regime. None of the three warships heading toward Syria is a serious instrument of power projection: they are surface combatants with an anti-surface or anti-submarine focus. Even if these ships wanted to, they could not meaningfully impact the correlation of forces in Syria, anti-ship missiles being about the most useless weapon imaginable in urban guerilla warfare. The best guess is that the flotilla is yet another clumsy attempt to show the flag and highlight Russia’s continued importance in the region.
A short time later, Syria allegedly engaged a second Turkish aircraft. According to a statement on Monday from Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister, Bulent Arinc, a Turkish CN-235 searching for the wreckage of the RF-4 came under fire by Syrian forces who ceased when warned by the Turkish military. As the wreckage of the craft was reportedly found Sunday, it is unclear when the plane came under fire or what shot at it.
Turkish and Syrian planes and coast guard vessels continue their search as the F-4’s crew has yet to be found. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdo?an said Friday, “Regarding our pilots, we do not have any information, but at the moment four of our gunboats and some Syrian gunboats are carrying out a joint search there.”
How Turkey responds is of great interest to the region. Turkey invoked Article 4 of the NATO treaty, calling on member nations to assemble in Brussels for a meeting of the North Atlantic Council earlier today at which Turkish officials presented their version of events. As expected, the outcome was one of condemnation but no immediate military response. Following the meeting, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen expressed solidarity with Turkey and condemned the shoot-down “in the strongest terms.” NATO also released a statement with unanimous endorsement calling the incident, “another example of the Syrian authorities’ disregard for international norms, peace and security, and human life.”