Syria's options in case of a US strike

Syrian army tanks (2 June 2013)

With every indication that the US - along with a small number of its allies - may be readying a punitive strike against Syrian government forces, an obvious question is what could Syria do to respond?

How far could it defend itself against the sort of attack that is being planned? And what steps might it take to retaliate in some way?

1. Syria's defences

All of the indications suggest that the sort of strike that is being planned by the US, Britain and perhaps France will involve weapons launched from long-range - Tomahawk land-attack cruise missiles fired from warships or submarines.

Fixed-wing aircraft may also be used, but if so they will probably employ stand-off weapons that again can be fired from well outside Syrian airspace. This will make it much harder for Syria to use its defensive systems to counter any attack.

Syria's air defences used to be highly capable, based upon older Soviet-supplied systems like the S-200/SA-5 Gammon, together with some more recently acquired Russian weapons, like the SA-22 and SA-17. Syria also deploys a variety of sophisticated Chinese-supplied radar systems.

Map: possible strike targets

The integrity of the system may have been damaged due to the loss of territory and some missile and radar sites to the rebels.

But Syria's air defences remain credible. That is one of the reasons why any attack would use stand-off weapons.

It should be remembered that Israeli jets have attacked Syrian targets over recent years with relative impunity. Sophisticated Western air forces are well versed in the sorts of weaponry at Syria's disposal.

Yes these missiles could shoot down aircraft, but equally the pilots have a range of defensive tactics and technology at their disposal. Uncertainty surrounds the much more capable S-300 system - ordered by Syria from Moscow - but thought not yet to be delivered or operational.

As well as air defences, Syria might seek to counter US and Western naval forces by using its own arsenal of shore-based anti-shipping missiles. For example, Syria deploys the Russian-supplied Yakhont - a supersonic anti-shipping missile known in Nato circles as the SS-N-26. But here too the Tomahawk firing vessels may be out of range of Syria's defensive weaponry.

Models for possible intervention

  • Iraq 1991: US-led global military coalition, anchored in international law; explicit mandate from UN Security Council to evict Iraqi forces from Kuwait
  • Balkans 1990s: US arms supplied to anti-Serb resistance in Croatia and Bosnia in defiance of UN-mandated embargo; later US-led air campaign against Serb paramilitaries. In 1999, US jets provided bulk of 38,000 Nato sorties against Serbia to prevent massacres in Kosovo - legally controversial with UN Security Council resolutions linked to "enforcement measures"
  • Somalia 1992-93: UN Security Council authorised creation of international force with aim of facilitating humanitarian supplies as Somali state failed. Gradual US military involvement without clear objective culminated in Black Hawk Down disaster in 1993. US troops pulled out
  • Libya 2011: France and UK sought UN Security Council authorisation for humanitarian operation in Benghazi in 2011. Russia and China abstained but did not veto resolution. Air offensive continued until fall of Gaddafi
2. Syria's retaliatory options

So if Syria cannot do much to counter the attacks themselves, how might it seek to respond or retaliate ?

  • Step up the anti-rebel offensive

One option would be to intensify attacks against rebel forces to seek some localised and spectacular victory to bolster the morale of the regime's forces and to signal to the US and its allies that the Assad regime remains undeterred.

  • Widen the conflict

An alternative approach would be to seek to broaden the conflict by striking at Turkey, US forces in Jordan or perhaps even to fire ballistic missiles against Israel. The risks here for the Syrian regime are huge. Turkey is well capable of defending itself, as are US forces in Jordan. In both countries there are Patriot anti-missile defences.

An attack on Israel is also unlikely. The Syrian military is heavily committed in the civil war.

Lashing out against Israel might provoke a massive retaliation - opening up the possibility of a wider regional war involving Syria's ally, Hezbollah in Lebanon. Israel too deploys capable anti-missile systems. Provoking a wider conflict may not be in the interests of either Damascus, or importantly Tehran.

  • Proxy war

Syria could seek to use a group like Hezbollah to carry out attacks against US or Western interests abroad. Here too though, the Iranian authorities may well have a view and with Iran seemingly intent on exploring a new opening with the West on its nuclear dossier, Tehran may be cautious about encouraging Hezbollah in this direction.

Hezbollah is also itself in a difficult position, having allied itself with President Assad. It may determine it has enough problems at the moment and that it is better to keep its powder dry.

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