Friday, November 9, 2012

A Syrian No-Fly Zone?

While the election was reaching its climax, a number of commentators criticized President Obama harshly for not intervening in the Syrian morass, suggesting that failure to act has been a mark of the president's and even liberal fecklessness. The most condescending opinion came (not surprisingly, perhaps) from Jeffrey Goldberg:

The U.S. has the capability to efficiently neutralize Syria’s air defenses and impose a no-fly zone to ground Assad’s attack helicopters. [Or perhaps] Obama isn’t quite the brilliant foreign-policy strategist his campaign tells us he is. Of course, he has had his successes. I’m not sure you’re aware of this, but Osama bin Laden is dead (killed, apparently, by Obama, who used only a salad fork and a No. 2 pencil)... Yet Obama’s record in the Middle East suggests that missed opportunities are becoming a White House specialty. Syria is the most obvious example.

Now on strictly humanitarian grounds, the case for intervening in Syria is very much like the case for Libya, which was clearly defensible. But is Goldberg right that the U.S. has the capability to impose a no-fly zone by "efficiently neutralizing" Syrian air-defenses?

It depends what you mean by "efficiently." I spoke recently by telephone with my friend Charles Glass in London, who knows Syria and Lebanon about as well as any American, and has no love for the Assad regime (while working for ABC-News in the 1990s, he was kidnapped by Hezbollah and finally escaped; he writes grippingly about the affair in Tribes With Flags). Charlie just returned from Aleppo, where he travelled on assignment, and interviewed many of the people who should know. The terrible problem, he explained, was that the U.S. cannot "neutralize" Syrian air defenses without also neutralizing hundreds, if not thousands, of Russian technicians and instructors.

The air defense systems Russia sold to Syria are simply too complex for most Syrian military to handle--he was told, again and again--so Russian personnel secretly fill the gaps. This report from The Economist sets the scene:

Unlike the air defences of Serbia, which NATO took on with relative ease during the 1999 Kosovo campaign, Syria’s are designed to deal with a sophisticated adversary—Israel. The Syrian regime has spent billions trying to get them up to scratch. They include modern Russian systems, which Western experts expect to be highly capable. There is the SA-22 Greyhound, a mobile system with both surface-to-air (SAM) missiles and anti-aircraft guns, the SA-17 Grizzly, a medium-range missile capable of handling many different targets simultaneously, and the long-range SA-5 Gammon, which poses a threat to command-and-control aircraft and aerial tankers. Syria also has about 4,000 rockets, which, like American Stingers, can be carried around without vehicles and hoisted onto a shoulder for use: “man-portable air-defence systems”, or MANPADS. 

And then there is this from Global Security:

On March 13, 2012, Deputy Minister of Defence of the Russian Federation Anatoly Antonov stated that the Government of the Russian Federation would not halt arms shipments to Syria, acknowledging that the Government of the Russian Federation has military instructors on the ground training the Syrian Arab Army and stating, 'Russia enjoys good and strong military technical co-operation with Syria, and we see no reason to reconsider it. Russian-Syria military co-operation is perfectly legitimate.

New Russian weapons supplies, reports The Moscow Times, add to Syria’s massive arsenal of hundreds of Soviet-built combat jets, attack helicopters and missiles and thousands of tanks, other armored vehicles and artillery systems. Russia has military advisers in Syria training the Syrians in their use, repairing and maintaining them. After all, Russia's only client in the region and they are loathe to surrender it.  China's also backed the regime.

Missed opportunities, a White House specialty, Goldberg writes. But if Charlie could figure this danger out, U.S. intelligence presumably could, too. Anyway, we might want to figure things out before we seize yet another Middle Eastern opportunity.


Potter said...

Very easy to sit and criticize. Goldberg is asking for war. Let him go or send his own.

Very difficult problem, but I think we are doing the right thing by doing less unilaterally. The horror is that innocents still cannot be saved and protected from this merciless protracted struggle. It points out the failings of the UN, the failure of The Responsibility to Protect and the inability of world community to act in such a situation in concert with ill-consequences to Russia in the process.

Sovereignty no longer exclusively protects States from foreign interference; it is a charge of responsibility that holds States accountable for the welfare of their people.

If Mr. Goldberg cares about this vis a vis Israel - he should be in a hurry for a just and peaceful resolution of the Palestinian issue.

Y. Ben-David said...

The people slaughtering each other in Syria (as also happened in Algerial, Yemen, Lebanon and other places) are all Muslims and Arabs.....brothers who love one another, as they keep telling us. We Jews-Zionists, on the other hand, THEY DON'T LIKE. But we can trust the Palestinians if we give up strategic territories and entrust our security to them, as was the case with the Oslo Agreements, right Dr Avishai? They would NEVER dare to attack us, right? We can trust them and agreements we sign with them, such as the peace agreement with Egypt, right?

Anonymous said...

Mr. Y. Ben-David please stop waving around your internet penis. We get that you are a paranoid fanatic. No one needs to see you endlessly stalking this blog - which you must secretly adore - writing the same thing over and over again. Please sit down and let someone else speak.