A Syrian No-Fly Zone?

While the election was reaching its climax, a number of commentators criticized President Obama harshly for not intervening in the Syrian morass, suggesting that failure to act has been a mark of the president's and even liberal fecklessness. The most condescending opinion came (not surprisingly, perhaps) from Jeffrey Goldberg:

The U.S. has the capability to efficiently neutralize Syria’s air defenses and impose a no-fly zone to ground Assad’s attack helicopters. [Or perhaps] Obama isn’t quite the brilliant foreign-policy strategist his campaign tells us he is. Of course, he has had his successes. I’m not sure you’re aware of this, but Osama bin Laden is dead (killed, apparently, by Obama, who used only a salad fork and a No. 2 pencil)... Yet Obama’s record in the Middle East suggests that missed opportunities are becoming a White House specialty. Syria is the most obvious example.

Now on strictly humanitarian grounds, the case for intervening in Syria is very much like the case for Libya, which was clearly defensible. But is Goldberg right that the U.S. has the capability to impose a no-fly zone by "efficiently neutralizing" Syrian air-defenses?

It depends what you mean by "efficiently." I spoke recently by telephone with my friend Charles Glass in London, who knows Syria and Lebanon about as well as any American, and has no love for the Assad regime (while working for ABC-News in the 1990s, he was kidnapped by Hezbollah and finally escaped; he writes grippingly about the affair in Tribes With Flags). Charlie just returned from Aleppo, where he travelled on assignment, and interviewed many of the people who should know. The terrible problem, he explained, was that the U.S. cannot "neutralize" Syrian air defenses without also neutralizing hundreds, if not thousands, of Russian technicians and instructors.

The air defense systems Russia sold to Syria are simply too complex for most Syrian military to handle--he was told, again and again--so Russian personnel secretly fill the gaps. This report from The Economist sets the scene:

Unlike the air defences of Serbia, which NATO took on with relative ease during the 1999 Kosovo campaign, Syria’s are designed to deal with a sophisticated adversary—Israel. The Syrian regime has spent billions trying to get them up to scratch. They include modern Russian systems, which Western experts expect to be highly capable. There is the SA-22 Greyhound, a mobile system with both surface-to-air (SAM) missiles and anti-aircraft guns, the SA-17 Grizzly, a medium-range missile capable of handling many different targets simultaneously, and the long-range SA-5 Gammon, which poses a threat to command-and-control aircraft and aerial tankers. Syria also has about 4,000 rockets, which, like American Stingers, can be carried around without vehicles and hoisted onto a shoulder for use: “man-portable air-defence systems”, or MANPADS. 

And then there is this from Global Security:

On March 13, 2012, Deputy Minister of Defence of the Russian Federation Anatoly Antonov stated that the Government of the Russian Federation would not halt arms shipments to Syria, acknowledging that the Government of the Russian Federation has military instructors on the ground training the Syrian Arab Army and stating, 'Russia enjoys good and strong military technical co-operation with Syria, and we see no reason to reconsider it. Russian-Syria military co-operation is perfectly legitimate.

New Russian weapons supplies, reports The Moscow Times, add to Syria’s massive arsenal of hundreds of Soviet-built combat jets, attack helicopters and missiles and thousands of tanks, other armored vehicles and artillery systems. Russia has military advisers in Syria training the Syrians in their use, repairing and maintaining them. After all, Russia's only client in the region and they are loathe to surrender it.  China's also backed the regime.

Missed opportunities, a White House specialty, Goldberg writes. But if Charlie could figure this danger out, U.S. intelligence presumably could, too. Anyway, we might want to figure things out before we seize yet another Middle Eastern opportunity.