The Complex

Why the Pentagon really, really doesn't want to get involved in Syria

Top Pentagon brass have been ambivalent in the extreme about getting involved in the Syrian crisis since it began more than two years ago. And now, even as the Obama administration signals its intention to provide direct military aid to opponents of the Syrian regime, there remains deep skepticism across the military that it will work.

With some notable exceptions, top brass believe arming Syrian rebels, creating a no-fly zone and intervening in other ways militarily, amounts to a risky approach with enormous costs that won't likely give the Syrian opposition the lift it needs. The announcement Thursday from the White House that its intelligence now confirms that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons signaled the Obama administration's apparent plan to lean forward militarily in Syria. But it does not appear to be the result of any change of thinking in the military.

While no one is talking about sending boots on the ground, top brass is extremely reluctant to commit assets. For example, senior military officers believe arming rebels, long one of the most popular initiatives among Syrian interventionists, will result in those arms getting into the wrong hands sooner or later. "There is no way to ensure their safeguarding and recovery procedures in the event the weapons are stolen or lost and end up in the wrong hands," one senior military officer said, speaking on an issue with which he is familiar but on which he isn't authorized to speak publicly.

Creating a no-fly zone sounds good on paper, military officials say, and might help to give a morale boost to the opposition. But it represents little more than a symbolic strategy meant to show the Assad regime that the U.S. and its allies want to contain the conflict. But if one of President Bashar al-Assad's aircraft are shot down, then what, military officials ask. Indeed, the military only sees the political costs to creating a no-fly zone and few of the benefits.  Besides, some believe that since the Syrian regime isn't making heavy use of its air assets in its efforts to tighten its grip on the uprising negates the purpose of a no-fly zone.

The Pentagon's enthusiasm for a no-fly zone is tempered by past experiences. The Air Force still quickly points to Operation Northern and Southern Watch over Iraq as an operationally exhausting and expensive endeavor that lasted many years.

"The biggest reason the military is resistant is frankly that it recognizes as well it should, post-Iraq, that military action brings extreme and unintended consequences and that's totally valid," said Joe Holliday, a fellow at the Institute for the Study of War. Holliday, who provided blueprints for military intervention to the Pentagon's Joint Staff some months ago, believes that while military planners have looked at various courses of action  - and the second and third order effects that would follow - it hasn't looked at the impact of not doing anything.

A perception that there is a dearth of military assets needed for such action contributes to the collective military sentiment about Syrian intervention. There's also perhaps a deep, psychological underpinning: the Syrian rebels are nearly indistinguishable from some of the very foreign fighters the military has been fighting.

"The defense establishment has been fighting jihadis for the last many years, and now, why are we helping them?"

Yet some believe that while there are few good military options, doing nothing could be worse. Gen. James Mattis, before he retired from U.S. Central Command, had said this spring that the U.S. could be effective in destroying targets within Syria before establishing a no-fly zone. The U.S. and its allies "could identify and destroy quite a fair amount of Assad's operational aircraft on the ground using precision strike and standoff weaponry."

Mattis retired from command of U.S. Central Command this spring amid widespread rumors that the White House was not receptive to his deeply felt concerns about the danger posed to the U.S. and the Middle East by Iran. Hezbollah, which receives support and funding from Iran, is thought to be sending assistance to the Assad regime for some time.

Still, the conventional wisdom across the senior level general and flag officers in the military is that military options generally aren't good ones. Gen. Philip Breedlove, commander of U.S. European Command and Supreme Allied Commander, Europe, had said he saw "no military value" in creating a no-fly zone inside northern Syria.

Such a zone could be created by using existing Patriot air defense missile systems. But in testimony earlier this year, Breedlove outlined is that of the six Patriot missile batteries deployed to Turkey to defend the border, only two are American. The other four come from NATO and Turkey, so the United States would require at least Turkey's consent to establish a no-fly zone that reached into northern Syria.

"We could do that," he said at the time. "The fact of the matter of being able to project power into Syria is physically possible. There is both good and bad at creating this impression into Syria." Patriots would have to be re-positioned to defend the no-fly zone extending into Syria, instead of their current role of protecting populations along the Turkish border, which could become politically unpalatable.

"A safe zone could create opportunity to engage with the opposition, but creating a safe zone in Northern Syria would be much more than -- would have to be much more than Patriots," Breedlove cautioned. "It would probably require fixed-wing air and other capabilities that we would have to bring to the problem."

That lack of strategic enthusiasm for a military role in Syria has animated or perhaps justified the administration's own ambivalence since the uprising began in March 2011. As the Pentagon grapples with a financial crisis largely brought on by the debts created by fighting two protracted wars for more than the last decade, military leaders aren't keen to slip into another fight. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Marty Dempsey, has repeatedly repudiated the idea of getting more involved in Syria. Providing direct military aid or getting involved in some other way is one thing, but it's the endgame the brass worries about. "Before we take action, we have to be prepared for what comes next," Dempsey told the Senate Armed Services Committee April 18.

And at a breakfast for reporters later that month, Dempsey again expressed doubt about intervention. "Whether the military effect would produce the kind of outcome I think that not only members of Congress but all of us would desire -- which is an end to the violence, some kind of political reconciliation among the parties, and a stable Syria -- that's the reason I've been cautious about the application of the military instrument of power.... It's not clear to me that it would produce that outcome," he said.

-/AFP/Getty Images

National Security

Here's a map of the 23 places the U.S. will bomb if there's a Syria no-fly zone

View Syrian air force bases in a larger map


Forget the small arms. If the White House really wants to alter the course of the Syrian civil war, it may well need to impose a no-fly zone. The good news is it probably won't be too hard to pull off, given the battered state of Assad's air defenses. The bad news is it could drag the U.S. into a wider war.

Bashar al-Assad's air force that has conducted between 115 and 141 air strikes a month from January through April of this year, largely with old Czechoslovakian-made L-39 Delfin trainer jets and helicopters such as the Soviet-designed Mi-8, Mi-17 and Mi-24.

The weapons may be old, but many analysts believe that they've made a crucial difference as pro-regime troops have seized the momentum in Syria's civil war. Some in the U.S. government are pushing for a total no-fly zone similar to the one imposed on Libya in 2011 in order to take out that air force.

(The map above shows the location of Assad's main air bases - the prime targets of any American campaign to limit Assad's power to strike from the sky.Let us know if we're missing any.)

On Friday, Anthony Cordesman of the influential Center for Strategic and International Studies said that anything less than (a pretty darn expensive) no-fly zone that totally grounds Assad's air force would be a "half-pregnant" solution similar to "supplying too few arms of too few lethality," as the U.S. and other nations have been said to be doing secretly for months without giving the rebels enough of an advantage to overthrow Assad.

A full-on no-fly zone would involve the U.S. and any other nations launching a high end assault with everything from B-2 stealth bombers to submarine and ship-launched Tomahawk cruise missiles aimed at destroying Assad's radars, missile sites and air defense control networks. It'd be similar to what was done at the start of Operation Odyssey Dawn, only bigger due to the fact that Syria has a much better air defense network than Libya did. Once these door-kickers have taken out the most dangerous elements of Syria's air defenses, other strike fighters such as U.S. Air Force F-15E Strike Eagles, F-16 Vipers -- some of which are already in neighboring Jordan --, and U.S. Navy and Marine Corps F/A-18E/F Super Hornets and F/A-18 Hornets would then be relatively free to hunt down and destroy Assad's aircraft on the ground or in the air.

As Cordesman points out, all of these jets would need to be flown off at least one aircraft carrier. The attack would also involve aircraft based in nearby Turkey, perhaps in  Jordan, as well as in other Middle East nations that host American warplanes. The strike jets would have to be supported by aerial refueling tankers, AWACS and possibly JSTARS radar planes, EA-18G Growler and EA-6B Prowler radar jamming jets, reconnaissance drones and other intelligence-gathering jets. A huge undertaking that would cost a ton and take a long time to achieve full effect. Remember, the U.S. and NATO patrolled the Libyan skies from March 2011 through October 2011, when Muammar al-Qaddafi.

However, as Christopher Harmer of the Institute for the Study of war points out, Assad's high-end air defenses are stationary - making them easy targets for rebel ground attack and have likely been seriously degraded by months of fighting.

"The fixed site portion of the Syrian [air defenses] - the heavy radar, heavy [surface to air missiles], etc., belong to the Syrian Air Force, and in my opinion, have suffered significantly in the fighting," said Harmer. "They can't get out of the way of the rebels; more problematic, these old Soviet legacy systems are maintenance and training intensive.  My guess is the Syrian Air Force has lost significant capability on its heavy, fixed site IADS due to a lack of maintenance, repair, and training."

He also points out that even Syria's most modern air defense weapons - mobile, Russian-made SA-17s and SA-22s -- don't have the reach to shoot down U.S. planes, which fire off long-range missiles like the Joint Stand-off Weapon. Nor can the defenses hope to stop American ships launching Tomahawk cruise missiles.

Furthermore, America's radar jamming EA-18Gs and EA-6Bs "can overwhelm the relatively low power radar of the SA-17 and SA-22; any fixed site (heavy power output) radar that starts to illuminate, we'll just put an (AGM-88 HARM anti-radar missile) into it. Game over for them," said Harmer. SA-17 and SA-22 are capable weapon systems, but our ability to defeat those weapons systems is far greater than the Syrians ability to interdict our air power."

There is one air defense system that could make life much more difficult for U.S. pilots, the Russian-made S-300 surface to air missiles. But the S-300 is not yet in country, despite the fact that Assad has ordered them from Russia. Those orders just got a lot more urgent, now that the U.S. is getting more directly involved in the Syrian civil war.