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The Ground Game in Syria


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By all accounts, President Obama is about to launch one of the most reluctant military strikes in U.S. history.

He has been cornered into acting in Syria by his own rhetoric and the criminality of the Assad regime, which in deploying chemical weapons joins a select, fiendish club of governments willing to flout one of the most firmly entrenched international norms. When it became clear earlier in the year that Bashar Assad’s forces were preparing to use chemical weapons, President Obama issued a number of warnings about red lines that he did all he could to dance around and evade once Assad indeed launched a chemical attack in April. Emboldened, Assad has perpetrated a more brazen assault that killed hundreds in the Damascus suburbs.

The outrage of our allies and the logic of the president’s own statements make it nearly impossible for him to escape acting this time. If he did somehow find a way out, it would dangerously erode the credibility of the United States. The president can’t repeatedly make threats that prove utterly empty without inviting every bad actor in the world to laugh off whatever we say in the future, in potentially much more dire and important circumstances.

The administration seems inclined to a minimal, Bill Clinton–style attack from the air. This would be better than nothing, although not without its own risks. If it is too obviously symbolic, it invites the regime to conclude that there is no real price to pay for using WMD and continue to do it in defiance of us. On the other hand, every military intervention — no matter how limited – is unpredictable, and Damascus or its allies may lash out in ways that demand our retaliation in an unexpected escalation.

Some of our friends urge going all the way and hitting Assad so as to shake the very foundations of his regime, tilt the balance of the civil war decisively toward the rebels, and hasten his fall from power. In isolation, this is a manifestly desirable goal. Assad is not just a monster but a cat’s paw of our enemy in Iran. If he were to lose, it would be a strategic setback to Iran, Russia, and Hezbollah, who have done so much to support him as he wages a scorched-earth campaign against his countrymen, and potentially change the balance in the region. Iran would no longer have a bridge connecting it with its terrorist proxies on Israel’s borders.

The reason to stop short of working to topple Assad is the nature of his opposition, dominated by Sunni extremists who are also hostile to our interests, if in different ways. This is why the crucial question in Syria is not what we’ll do from the air but what we can do on the ground to shape an opposition in which we can have some confidence. After Assad’s last chemical attack, President Obama said he would arm more moderate elements among the rebels, but didn’t follow through. We should have covert forces on the ground arming, training, and advising the rebels with whom we can work, so we aren’t leaving the field to Arab governments with their own interests in influencing the nature of the rebellion.

Both justice and cold-blooded calculation say that Assad should fall, provided he’s not replaced by something equally bad. To that end, we should be creating proxy forces on the ground. Syria is a hellish problem, to be sure, but its difficulties needn’t freeze us in perpetual indecision. President Obama’s foreign policy of impotence is a choice, not an inevitability.


Strike on Syria
As diplomatic rhetoric escalates over alleged use of chemical weapons by Syrian forces, the White House is mulling plans for a potential U.S. strike on the Assad regime. Here’s how that strike might look. Pictured, the destroyer USS Gravely, currently deployed off the coast of Syria.
The Obama administration has been busy laying the diplomatic and political groundwork for a strike, but has not confirmed any specific strike plan. Pictured, Secretary of State John Kerry discusses Syria at a press conference on August 26.
Media reports have coalesced around the concept of a quick strike primarily using Tomahawk cruise missiles fired from surface and submarine vessels operating in the Mediterranean, possibly complemented by heavy bombers. Pictured, Tomahawk launch from USS Sterett.
The strikes would target regime infrastructure, command centers, and artillery batteries. They would likely not target chemical weapon manufacturing or storage facilities because of the risk of collateral damage. Pictured, Syrian government tanks in Damascus.
Such a plan would inflict targeted but serious damage on the Syrian regime without putting U.S. pilots in harm’s way. Pictured, Syrian president Bashar Al Assad meets with army troops.
The Pentagon has confirmed that four Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyers are already in the eastern Mediterranean: The USS Ramage, USS Mahan, USS Gravely, and USS Barry (pictured). A fifth destroyer, USS Stout, is also in the region.
The Arleigh Burke class is built around the Aegis Combat System, a powerful combination of radar and missile technology. A mainstay of the Navy’s surface offense capabilities, there are currently 62 active Arleigh Burke-class vessels in the American inventory. Pictured, USS Barry.
At just over 500 feet in length, Arleigh Burke destroyers can cruise at 30 knots and have a range of up to 4,400 nautical miles. Pictured, USS Ramage.
It is likely that at least one submarine is also in the region, but submarine deployments are rarely made public even during peacetime. Pictured, the USS Florida, which took part in operations against Libya in 2011.
The Tomahawk flies at speeds of up to 550 miles per hour and as low as 50 feet to avoid enemy air defenses. With a range of approximately 1,500 miles, it could hit any target in Syria.
The latest generation of Tomahawk missile can loiter over the battlespace for hours, transmit battle-damage assessments, and be re-targeted in flight.
The Tomahawk can carry a single, 1,000-pound warhead or drop smaller bomblets in precision strikes. Pictured, a Tomahawk launches from USS Shoup.
The Tomahawk can also be fired from submarines while submerged. Pictured, a Tomahawk launch from USS Pasadena.
Arleigh Burke destroyers can carry about 90 Tomahawk missiles. Their launches, often at night during the opening moments of a campaign, have been covered by news media since Desert Storm. Pictured, Tomahawk launch from USS Sterett.
The Tomahawk has been a workhorse of naval combat operations since its debut in 1991 against Iraq in Operation Desert Storm; 288 were fired in that conflict. Pictured, a Tomahawk launches from the battleship USS Wisconsin during Desert Storm.
Tomahawks were used most recently against Libya in Operation Odyssey Dawn, where more than 100 were fired from USS Barry (pictured) and British Royal Navy vessels.
Heavier ordnance would likely be delivered by Air Force B-2 Spirit stealth bombers, which operate out of Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri.
The B-2 would be preferred for its ability to penetrate advanced air defense systems, a mission for which it was specifically designed. Syria’s air defenses use Soviet-built equipment.
The B-2 can carry 40,000 pounds of guided munitions, in either 500- or 2,000-pound versions. It is refueled in flight to give it intercontinental range.
Air Force fighter aircraft could also be used to launch precision-guided stand-off weapons — such as the AGM-154 Joint Standoff Weapon or AGM-158 Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile — without having to enter Syrian airspace. Pictured, an F-16 deploys the AGM-154.
Fighter aircraft involved in an operation over Syria would include F-15 and F-16 aircraft, and would likely operate from Incirlik Air Base in Turkey and possibly facilities in Jordan. Pictured, an F-15 Eagle.
The Navy could also deploy strike aircraft from two carriers in the region — USS Harry S. Truman and USS Nimitz — which operate in the north Arabian sea, as well as from Sigonella Air Base in Italy. Pictured, an F-18E Super Hornet launches from Truman.
British forces in the Mediterranean are also likely to participate in action against Syria. The British could field strike aircraft from Akrotiri Royal Air Force Station on Cyprus, as well as their own Tomahawk missiles (pictured) launched from Royal Navy vessels.
Drones such as the MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper (pictured) would likely play only a small role, if any, mainly to gather intelligence. Their weapons loads are too small to take out any target beside a vehicle.
A strike on Syria would be similar to those undertaken against Libya during Operation Odyssey Dawn in 2011 and against Iraq during Operation Desert Strike in 1998. Pictured, Tomahawk launch from USS Shiloh during Operation Desert Strike.
In Odyssey Dawn, more than 100 Tomahawks were fired from USS Barry and British Royal Navy vessels, while three B-2 bombers struck 45 targets on the opening night of the operation. Pictured, Tomahawk launch from USS Stout during Odyssey Dawn.
Syria has an aggressive air defense capability that could pose a threat to manned bombers. The Syrian air force is estimated to have 365 combat aircraft and 150 anti-aircraft missile batteries, with some 8,000 anti-aircraft missiles at its disposal. Pictured, a Syrian MiG-23 drops bombs in 2011.
Updated: Aug. 28, 2013

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