Syria's air defenses: Formidable or not?

Article Highlights

  • It seems doubtful that Pentagon planners truly believe that Syria’s air defenses are a significant hurdle to intervening in that country’s civil war.

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  • In general, it is true that Syria’s air defense network is far more substantial than Libya’s was.

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  • Controlling the skies over Syria presents a more formidable task than Libya. However, Libya is a low bar with which to compare Syria.

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Ever since the debate in the United States began over whether to intervene in some fashion in Syria’s civil war, senior military and Pentagon officials have cautioned that Syria’s air defenses would pose a formidable hurdle to such an intervention. Such caution was particularly common last spring, when the issue of whether to create a “no-fly zone” over Syria or to establish a “safe haven” within the country was being debated. Then-CENTCOM Commander General James Mattis, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey, and then-Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta all suggested that conducting a military operation in or over Syria would be far more difficult than the air campaign conducted against Libya in the spring and summer of 2011. Although General Dempsey told the Senate Armed Services Committee in testimony that “we can do anything,” he is also on record as saying that Syria’s air defenses are “five times more sophisticated” than those faced in Libya — suggesting American airstrikes or air cover would involve far more risk and would be far more complicated. Is this an accurate picture?

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Gary J.
Schmitt

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