Crossing the red line: US and allies prepare to strike Syria

Just one week after an attack killed hundreds in strategic Damascus suburbs, US Secretary of State John Kerry has indicated that the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons was “undeniable.”

August 28, 2013 21:14
A Syrian army tank in action.

syrian army tank 370. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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Just one week after an attack killed hundreds in strategic Damascus suburbs, US Secretary of State John Kerry has indicated that the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons was “undeniable.”

The announcement came after a week of naval deployments meant to give the United States and its allies the capability to strike Syrian targets in response for the regime’s use of weapons of mass destruction.

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Undoubtedly, the first choice for establishing international legitimacy for an intervention will be to get the approval of the United Nations Security Council. Yet from the apparent stances of Russia and China on Syria, the council is not expected to approve intervention. If Security Council authorization cannot be obtained, the operation will have to be based on different legal grounds.

As Anglo-American strategist Colin Gray states, “War is not a sporting event; it is not waged for the purpose of winning. Victory, or a tolerable stalemate, is sought for political reasons.”

In the light of this clear definition of a campaign’s goals, we must first understand the main parameters of a possible military effort against the Ba’athist dictatorship in Syria.

In a sense, the aim is the most important factor that will define the scope and character of the intervention. There are various goals which can be defined as the aim and each of them points to a different way of conducting the operation.

For example, if the declared aim is to punish the Assad regime, it can be expected that the operation will target military capabilities that the regime values.

Preventing the Assad regime from resorting to chemical and/or biological weapons in the future is another possible rationale for such an operation.

The destruction of chemical weapons requires accounting for stockpiles and then constructing specially designed facilities to incinerate the chemical precursor agent. This type of operation would take a considerable amount of time to set up and would necessitate a secure environment for the construction and operation of these special facilities. Thus, Turkey, as part of its larger defensive plans to to contend with a chemical attack, could work closely with the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) on contingency plans to operate from areas on or near Turkey’s border with Syria.

Another aim, which has been advocated by the Turkish side for a long time, is to establish a no-fly zone in Syria so as to protect the civilian population but also to redress the balance of forces on the ground to favor the opposition.

An even more ambitious aim is regime change. Such an operation would bring about a more consequential impact and help to topple the Assad regime.

The recent naval buildup confirms the likely use of stand-off strikes employing cruise missiles. Tomahawk land attack missiles, for example, can be launched from surface vessels (US Navy Arleigh Burkeclass destroyers and Ticonderoga- class cruisers) and submarines (US Navy Los Angelesclass, Ohio-class; and the Royal Navy Trafalgar-class and Astute-class submarines).

As of now, the combat vessels deployed in the Mediterranean – USS Gravely, USS Barry, USS Ramage and, recently, the USS Mahan – are all Arleigh Burkeclass missile destroyers equipped with vertical launch systems capable of firing Tomahawks.

With a 50 percent offensive missile load for the Aerleigh Burke-class destroyers, each vessel would be able to carry some 45 Tomahawks. Furthermore, the Royal Navy’s Trafalgar-class submarines are equipped with five 533 mm torpedo tubes that can carry up to 30 Tomahawk missiles.

Open-source information suggests that the UK deploys at least one of these submarines in the Mediterranean at any given time. In addition, the United Kingdom’s Astute-class submarine is believed to carry more cruise missiles than the Trafalgar class boats. Like the British, the US Navy is likely to have deployed at least one guided missile submarine (SSGN) in the Mediterranean.

Thus we believe that the initial deployment of American and British ships can carry between 200 and 400 Tomahawks, depending on the number of submarines deployed in the area. This level more or less resembles the number of cruise missiles used during Operation Desert Fox in 1998.

Nevertheless, the initial deployment is expected to be supported by other assets.

Open-source information suggests that two carrier strike groups (CSG) the USS Nimitz CSG and the USS Harry Truman CSG, are deployed in the US Fifth Fleet’s area of responsibility.

Moreover, at the time of writing, The Guardian reported that the Royal Air Force is intensifying activity at the British Akrotiri Base on the island of Cyprus.

A military assessment by the Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies shows that the forthcoming operation would likely target: a) Symbols of the regime’s potency (i.e. HQs and military complexes of praetorian units such as the 4th Armored Division, Republican Guard); b) Some of the regime’s important operational air bases’ runways, fuel storage and hardened aircraft shelters; c) key facilities related to the WMD program (Al-Safira Base, Scientific Studies and Research Center, etc.); d) known missile forces and strategic weapon systems; and e) key command and control sites and critical decision-making facilities.

AT THIS stage a land-based operation is not contemplated.

There appear to be no preparations to send ground troops to Syria in any countries and most important in the US. However, if Syria opts to strike Turkish targets with ballistic missiles, Ankara and NATO may quickly find themselves in a conflict through the invocation of NATO’s collective defense provision, Article V.

From a Turkish perspective, the most important strategic decision relates to the involvement of Turkish or Turkeybased assets and capabilities in an operation. The more Turkey is operationally involved, the higher the risk of a retaliatory strike from Syria. Ankara will therefore need to ensure that the first wave of allied attacks includes strategic targets in Syria with a view to greatly diminish the regime’s ability to strike back. But for the longer term, Ankara’s security will be affected by the conditions prevailing in the aftermath of an international intervention.

Dr. Can Kasapoglu and Aaron Stein are research fellows at the Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies (EDAM), an Istanbul- based, independent think tank. This op-ed was adapted from the recent EDAM report on US strike options in Syria. Syria_Red_Line.pdf

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