BEIRUT – International military action against Syria’s government over its alleged use of chemical weapons would run up against one of the Middle East’s most formidable air defenses, a system bolstered in recent years by top-of-the-line Russian hardware.
The U.S. said last week that intelligence indicates the Syrian regime has likely used the deadly nerve agent sarin on at least two occasions in the civil war. That assessment has increased pressure for a forceful response from President Obama, who has said the use of chemical weapons would cross a red line and carry enormous consequences.
Obama has tried to temper expectations of quick action against Syria, saying he needs hard, effective evidence before making a decision. But he has also said that if it is determined that the regime of President Bashar Assad has used such weapons, then we would have to rethink the range of options that are available to us.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told a news conference Thursday the administration is rethinking its opposition to arming the rebels, saying it is one of the options being considered along with its allies in the more than 2-year-old conflict.
In 2011, the U.S. and its NATO allies imposed a no-fly zone in Libya after Moammar Gadhafi’s brutal crackdown on its uprising. The allied air campaign, which received U.N. backing, played a major role in the rebels’ victory in Libya’s eight-month civil war.
While NATO quickly knocked out Libya’s air defenses, experts warn that Syria’s capabilities are far more sophisticated and its system is far more extensive than Gadhafi’s was.
In the case of Libya, the system had deteriorated completely already before the outbreak of the conflict due to the fact that Gadhafi had not invested so much in his air defense, said Pieter Wezeman, a senior researcher at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. In the case of Syria, it’s quite different.
Syria, experts say, possesses one of the most robust air defense networks in the region, with multiple surface-to-air missiles providing overlapping coverage of key areas in combination with thousands of anti-aircraft guns capable of engaging attacking aircraft at lower levels.
Six years ago, the system was showing signs of neglect.
In 2007, Syria’s aging Soviet-supplied air defense system received a shock when Israeli jets bombed a suspected nuclear reactor site along the Euphrates River in northeastern Syria. The attack proved deeply embarrassing and provided a jolt to the Assad regime, which responded by making a concerted push to upgrade its air defenses, and turned to the country’s traditional arms provider, Russia, for help.