After months of violence in Syria, the international community appears to be rousing itself toward action. Russia and China may be able to block sanctions against the regime at the Security Council, but they failed to stop the UN General Assembly’s human-rights committee from condemning Damascus during a vote on Tuesday. That paves the way for the United Nations throwing its collective weight behind an Arab League plan, hashed out earlier this month, that calls for the Syrian government to halt attacks on its own people.
If that fails, Turkey is preparing contingency plans for a partial no-fly zone, or buffer zone, to create safe havens for civilians inside Syria. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan made his first direct appeal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on Tuesday, calling for him to resign or face the bloody fate that has awaited other fallen dictators. “You are talking about fighting to the death,” Mr. Erdogan said.
As a fight looms, however, military analysts warn that Syria presents a much more forbidding combat challenge than relatively weaker states such as Libya that succumbed to uprisings earlier this year. Any intervention would face at least three major threats:
Mobile surface-to-air defences
One reason Russia feels reluctant to give up on the regime in Syria is because it’s been an excellent customer for weapons. Damascus recently signed deals for Russian medium-range SA-17s, although it’s not clear if any of the advanced surface-to-air missiles were delivered. Syria did receive up to 50 modern air-defence systems known as SA-22s, big trucks mounted with guns and missiles that complement some of Syria’s older surface-to-air hardware, which can also move by road. Thousands of smaller hand-held portable anti-aircraft missiles are also stocked in the country’s arsenals. That means it wouldn’t be easy, or cheap, to dominate the skies. “The absence of these systems from the Libyan theatre was the dog that didn’t bark,” said Shashank Joshi, an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute. “Remember the F-117 Nighthawk shot down in Serbia in 1999? It was shot down with a road-mobile SA-3, and partly because the fighter was in a valley. That’s the type of terrain any intervening power would face in parts of Syria, in contrast to the flat and open terrain of Libya.”
Besides wondering where the Syrians have stashed their anti-aircraft missiles, military planners will also be asking themselves a more psychological question: How crazy is Mr. al-Assad? Specifically, is he crazy enough to lash out with weapons of mass destruction? Chemical weapons development dates back at least to the 1970s in Syria, and its stockpiles now include mustard, sarin, and VX agents. Senate testimony this year from the director of the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency suggested that Mr. al-Assad may even possess biological weapons, though with “potential for limited agent production” only. These nasty things could theoretically be delivered via artillery or bomb drops, but the most practical threat would be a missile that could reach Israel or Turkey. Syria has an arsenal of SS-21s, Scuds, and Fateh-110s – any of which could get outfitted with chemical warheads, and all of which have enough range to cause havoc in the major cities of nearby countries. “I’m quite certain this factor is being taken into consideration, if it comes to a conflict,” said Dany Shoham, a senior researcher at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University in Israel. “But it would be an extreme move.”
Iraq and Afghanistan continue to haunt the dreams of NATO planners, so the nightmare of an Alawi-based insurgency means nobody is seriously considering an invasion. But foreign militaries would not need to set foot in Syria to make themselves vulnerable to guerrilla attacks, or “asymmetric warfare.” Damascus is believed to have strong links with Hezbollah, second only to the militant group’s even stronger ties with Iran. Both countries could give weapons to extremists with hints about where to aim them. In its annual report, “The Military Balance,” the International Institute for Strategic Studies reported on allegations that Hezbollah now has over 40,000 rockets and missiles, including Scud-Ds. “The Scuds are believed to have a range of more than 435 miles [700 kilometres] placing Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and Israeli nuclear installations within the range of Hezbollah’s military forces,” the report says. The IISS added that the supply of heavy weapons has blurred the line between Hezbollah’s traditional guerrilla tactics and its conventional military capabilities. An Israeli media outlet reported that arms shipments from Syria have grown so rapidly this year that the militant group “doesn’t know where to put it all.”