Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Will the US strike Syrian targets?

The West has warned Syrian rebels to expect a military strike within days, sources said, August 27. The rebels have given the West a list of targets, Reuters reported. United States President Barack Obama believes the Syrian regime should be held accountable for its recent use of chemical weapons, and he will make an informed decision on how to respond in the coming days, according to a statement made August 26 by US Secretary of State John Kerry.

US President Barack Obama weighs military options in
response to recent chemical weapons attacks in Syria
Two months ago a Western-led strike on Syrian military assets seemed unlikely, now, after an admittedly ambiguous chemical weapons attack in Damascus, the US is positioning forces in the region in preparation for an expected limited strike or series of strikes. However, a number of obstacles remain and a lack of clear high-level guidance will limit US intervention efforts.

US President Barack Obama has previously indicated any Syrian chemical weapons use would cross an arbitrary “red line” resulting in US strikes. Regime forces have been suspected of using chemical weapons in the past, but little evidence was found then to warrant military strikes.

US warships have been repositioned in the Mediterranean Sea with the ability to launch Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles (TLAM) against a range of targets in Syria. Four Arleigh Burke Class destroyers - the USS Mahan, USS Ramage, USS Gravely, and USS Barry – will deliver TLAM strikes and Mark 41 (MK 41) missiles as a prelude to any manned aircraft engaging targets over Syria. According to Dietrich Kuhlman’s assessment of Arleigh Burke Class destroyers, there is a total of about 204 TLAM assets currently on station, as well the ability to reload for an indefinite campaign.

Air forces based in Turkey, Italy, Cyprus, Greece, Jordan, Bahrain, Qatar, U.A.E., and Oman can also join any strike. Aircraft types ranging from heavy bombers to fighter-bombers will be included. Overflight requests will need to be guaranteed by surrounding countries.

Alongside these US assets float two aircraft carrier groups in the Red Sea and Persian Gulf, each with more firepower than most developed nations. US ballistic missiles submarines can be expected in theatre as well.

A reliable indication of any impending airstrikes is the presence of US Navy E-6B TACAMO (Take Charge And Move Out) aircraft. E-6s have a range of 5,500 miles, have full-spectrum communication capabilities, and can perform the so-called Looking Glass mission to talk to submarines. It can launch commands to ICBMs (InterContinental Ballistic Missiles) via Airborne Launch Control System, and can perform C3 (Command Control Communication) operations to forces operating in theatre. Several are flying around the world at any time - regardless of conflict status - and always accompany strike aircraft to coordinate attacks between multiple weapons platforms. 

Because of their status, they can be tracked on Planefinder.net using the bogus callsign “GOTO FMS”. 

Considering the order of battle in the region, striking targets in Syria remains a mission only the United States can accomplish effectively. US forces are far and away the most competent military ready to engage Syrian regime forces. British and French military assets are also reported in the region, but a combined strike would be more relevant for any NATO or United Nations post-strike discussion than actually necessary tactically.

Regardless of media reports the situation on the ground in Syria has not changed appreciably in the past few days. The strategic problems which faced the international community at the beginning of the Syrian conflict still exist.

Syrian air defence is robust, redundant and spread strategically over the western regions of the country offering relatively effective protection, the rebel groups are divided without central leadership, Jihadist groups lurk in the shadows waiting for a bigger vacuum, the American stomach for ground occupation is non-existent, and there is no agreement in the international community around if they should strike – let alone how and when.

US Navy Arleigh Burke Class destroyer
Chemical weapons are notoriously difficult to destroy from the air and will almost certainly require ground troops to secure. Blowing chemical weapons up would simply spread the chemicals around, whether undertaken by ground troops or missile strikes. For this reason, the weapons would need to be removed requiring significant logistical resources. 

Even if the situation is taken at face value, there are still a number of objectives US airstrikes could pursue.

They include: deterring further chemical attacks on Syrian civilians, punishing the regime for chemical weapons use, degrading the regime’s ability to deliver chemical weapons, degrade or destroy chemical weapons in known locations, degrade Syrian conventional forces, and also degrade Syrian air defence systems. 

Those options exclude ground-force campaigns. Any build up for a full-scale invasion (which would be necessary to secure Syrian chemical weapons) would take months and would offer little strategic surprise. The quickest mission to secure these weapons would still take up to three or four months, with the calculation for problems increasing with each day spent on the ground. The US has learned many lessons about invasion and occupation over the last decade, but they would still encounter unforeseen obstacles which could tie them down for years.

However, unforeseen consequences and a lack of perfect knowledge is a reality every commander understands. Hitting Syrian regime targets will go some way in re-balancing the battle towards rebel forces, but what then? It’s a wise question, but it is not necessary to know exactly how a conflict will play out or precisely how the fight will end in order to take action. 

The crucial ingredient of starting a military intervention campaign is having a clear mission objective and robust high-level guidance. Removing Syrian President Bashar al Assad is a clear objective, as is stopping him from using more chemical weapons. However, punishing the regime for using the weapons is not a clear objective.

The use of chemical weapons is surely an atrocity. The US has good reasons for building up an ability to respond to the latest weapons use. There are good strategic and political interests for the US to be involved in Syria, or to at least be thinking about intervening. Because the longer the fighting continues in Syria, the more extremists from around the world will join, causing more problems for international stability in the future when those fighters return home with new skills. 

Syrian SAM sites - IMINT & Analysis via Google Earth
Green - SA-6
Violet - SA-5
Blue - SA-3
Red - SA-2
Breaking those militant groups early and discouraging jihadist volunteers, as well as building up popular movements against al Qaeda groups, are just as important as limiting regime use of chemical weapons. Unfortunately, these objectives do not appear to be a high priority for the US administration. 

Mr Obama will have to announce coherent and strategic reasons for striking Syrian targets to give the international community and the American people no doubt as to why their military is being used. The US must dictate a clear understanding of what objectives striking Syria will serve as well as confirming if there is a long-term commitment. 

Punitive strikes in response to an arbitrary “red line” do little to help the rebel cause and cannot take advantage of the opportunities emerging if a more comprehensive intervention is considered. 

Ultimately, placing a “red line” around chemical weapons usage will require Mr Obama to respond in some military capacity, or risk encouraging other countries facing similar US military red line threats to push their boundaries. If the al Assad regime feels it can get away with limited chemical weapons attacks, it may feel encouraged to expand them in the future.

A comprehensive, full-spectrum campaign to secure Syrian chemical weapons is highly unlikely given the incredible logistical demands and necessary buildup time. However, targeted strikes on regime assets could be authorised by the US Defence Department in the coming days. It remains unclear how far and how long these strikes will continue or what the strategic missions will be.


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