By Ala’ Alrababa’h (twitter: @a_alrababah)
Note: This post is based on a detailed military analysis that Ala’ Alrababa’h conducted under the supervision of Professor Daryl Press, of Dartmouth College.
The Obama administration is clearly reluctant to intervene in Syria. A full-scale intervention risks dragging the United States into another civil war. Most proposals for limited interventions – e.g., airstrikes to weaken the Syrian government, or direct military support for one or more rebel groups – risk accelerating the Syrian government’s collapse without establishing any real U.S. influence over post-Assad Syria. But a different type of limited intervention is possible, which would raise small risks for U.S. forces and directly alleviate the ongoing humanitarian disaster.
The humanitarian situation in Syria is dreadful—about 80,000 people have died in the fighting, and conditions may be growing worse: evidence is mounting that chemical weapons have been used, perhaps by the Syrian government, perhaps by the rebels, and perhaps by both sides. Those who say that little can be done to alleviate the suffering have overlooked a promising military option: establishing safe corridors to help civilians stuck in the crossfire escape. Here, I advance a plan similar to Anne-Marie Slaughter’s 2012 proposal for “no-kill zones” in Syria. Those zones would provide humanitarian assistance to civilians in close proximity to the borders.
The Assad regime has repeatedly targeted escaping refugees (see here, here, and here) – keeping non-combatants locked in Syria as virtual hostages. An operation to establish safe escape corridors would require three principal military missions: (1) establishing air supremacy over Syria; (2) patrolling the skies over the safe corridor, and (3) policing the safe corridors – the latter would be done by Syrian rebel forces.
Opponents of intervention often claim that establishing air supremacy over Syria – which must be done before U.S. aircraft could safely patrol the skies over safe corridors – would pose a substantial challenge for the United States. Syria, it is said, has a “formidable” air defense system. Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, noted that Syria’s air defenses are “approximately five times more sophisticated” than Libya’s. Thus, opponents warn that an intervention could lead to “catastrophic results” and would cause “more deaths than would non-intervention.”
But these fears seem overblown. Although Syria fields a large number of air defense systems, they compare unfavorably to the integrated air defense system (IADS) that Iraq possessed in 1991. Syria has roughly 150 batteries of surface-to-air-missiles, mostly Soviet-made SA-2, SA-3, and SA-6 systems – the same weapons the United States and its allies faced in greater numbers in 1991. Yet, coalition forces established air supremacy over Iraq in 11 days, with virtually no losses in those strikes. And U.S. capabilities for defeating enemy IADS systems have vastly improved in the more than two decades that have passed since Operation Desert Storm.
Some reports claim that Syria has recently obtained more advanced air defense weapons, such as SA-10 and SA-22 systems. Some of those reports have been contested. But even if Syria now has some more advanced air defense weapons, the United States has been working for decades to develop jammers, decoys, and tactics to thwart modern air defenses. Israel is apparently able to enter Syria’s airspace at will (see here, here, and here); the United States can as well.
Nor would establishing air supremacy require a large air commitment from the United States. In addition to striking the Syrian IADS, the United States would undoubtedly attack Syria’s military airfields and the aircraft protected within their (approximately) 57 hardened aircraft shelters. Extrapolating sortie and aircraft requirements from the Desert Storm mission suggests that the air supremacy mission could be accomplished within about a week using fewer than 50 tactical aircraft (e.g., F-15s, F-16s, and F-18s), operating from nearby bases or (in the case of the F-18s) from aircraft carriers in the Mediterranean.
And after achieving air supremacy, actually patrolling the safe corridors would require even fewer U.S. aircraft – supported by drones.
The most dangerous part of an operation to protect safe corridors appears to be the third mission: using lightly-armed troops on the ground to police the corridors from small-scale military incursions by pro-regime forces (U.S. airpower would protect the corridors from large-scale Syrian ground attacks). If the Obama Administration and U.S. allies are dead-set against putting their conventional forces on the ground in Syria, this third mission (e.g., manning roadblocks, conducting patrols along the roads, and reporting sightings of well-armed pro-government forces to U.S. forces) could be conducted by local Syrian forces operated by the Syrian rebels’ Supreme Military Command (SMC).
Establishing safe escape corridors in Syria offers major advantages over the alternatives. It has the potential to save more civilians than merely creating a no-fly zone. Escape corridors would not help all Syrian civilians, but would save those civilians who can reach the safe passages. Since many civilians live in close proximity to the Jordanian and Turkish borders, this operation could significantly reduce casualties.
Second, this operation would allow the Obama Administration to punish the Assad government for its alleged chemical weapons use, but do so without drawing the United States into the middle another civil war.
Third, this operation would send a clear signal to the Syrian regime that it’s time to look for an end-game which involves fleeing the country. By neutralizing Syria’s air defenses, the United States would greatly simplify any future military operations that the United States, or NATO, or the UN might desire later, if Syria continues to escalate its attacks on civilians.
Of course, an intervention to establish safe corridors has its own limitations. For one, this plan would save a significant number of Syrian civilians, but would not help many people who live away from the escape corridors. In addition, the U.S. would need to closely coordinate with Syrian rebel groups on the ground. This could prove problematic as the U.S. may not know which rebel groups are both competent and moderate. And the operation would require major efforts to help Turkey, Jordan, and Iraq host the swelling numbers of refugees until the conflict in Syria ends.
Any intervention in Syria poses risks. But the humanitarian situation is terrible, and possibly worsening. The United States and its allies have a low-risk military option available to improve the plight of civilians in Syria. The United States can do more to help the Syrian people without being dragged into a quagmire.