I’m sure there are plenty of smartass answers to the implicit question this article poses, but please keep them to yourselves. I have a nice, fat old-school National Geographic atlas at home (yes, I know about Google Earth, too), and I’m quite capable of distinguishing the two countries on a map. But with all the calls recently for military action against the Syrian regime—including one by no less a figure than Sen. John McCain, who knows a thing or two about bombing hostile nations and the possible consequences for our pilots—the subject deserves a serious look.
Gen. James Mattis, the current CENTCOM commander (love the guy, even if he is hard on regimental commanders—check out his portrayal in Generation Kill), appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) on 6 March to address this question. He pointed out some of the same things I’ll summarize here.
First, there are no “safe zones” in Syria for an air campaign to defend. In Libya, the geographic separation of the main population centers and the defection of substantial elements of the military early on created extensive rebel-held territory in the eastern part of the country. That doesn’t exist in Syria—particularly the part about widespread defections from the military. Yes, low-ranking soldiers have defected, but senior officers—who are Alawites like Assad—have not left taking entire units with them, as we saw in Libya and also in Yemen.
As Gen. Mattis told the SASC, the only way to create such safe zones would be to insert ground troops—large numbers of ground troops, needless to say, since I doubt the Syrian Army would just stand by and applaud. Although we and other NATO members had special operations forces on the ground in Libya assisting the rebels and handling target acquisition, you may recall the drumbeat from the very beginning of that campaign that there would be no ground troops used. Well, in Syria things would have to start with them.
Second, the Syrian air defense network is an order of magnitude beyond what Libya possessed. The Syrian Air Defense Command (SADC) is composed of about 54,000 personnel in two divisions, equipped with thousands of anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) guns and over 130 surface-to-air missile (SAM) batteries. The Syrians have SA-2, SA-3, SA-5, SA-6, and SA-8 systems, which are older (the SA-2 is the infamous “flying telephone pole” of the Rolling Thunder campaigns over North Vietnam) and similar to what the Libyans had, but the Syrian network is crucially different. The Syrians operate a lot more systems and maintain them far better than the Libyans, and their systems are deployed in an effective overlapping, self-reinforcing layout.
Keep in mind that with the eastern part of Libya in rebel hands from the start of the air campaign, the Libyan air defense perimeter was already breached. Syria won’t be like that. Syria also has more advanced systems than the Libyans did—40 to 50 SA-22s and some SA-11s. Finally, it was reported in November 2011 that the Russians were helpful enough to upgrade some Syrian air defense radar sites and provided the much more advanced S-300 SAM system—the very system they had threatened to sell to the Iranians, to the concern of both the Israeli and U.S. Air Forces.
Speaking of air forces, Syria does have a more capable air force than Libya did, with its frontline interceptors being MiG-25s and MiG-29s—not the latest and greatest by far, but respectable. Still, the U.S. military is not that worried about Syrian fighter aircraft—it’s all those missiles that concern them.
Could we—and despite any NATO help, it would still be a lot of “we”—crack Syria’s air defenses? Of course we could. The question is how many planes and pilots we might lose in the process. Another equally important question as we consider putting these men and women at risk is what we could achieve without the introduction of ground forces. As things stand right now, with no militarily-capable resistance in Syria, the answer is not very much.