Verify And VerifyAfter weeks of uncertainties over military strikes against Syria, diplomatic efforts now seem to have the best chance for a settlement of the crisis. The conditions for a political settlement enshrined in a framework were agreed by Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Geneva on 14 September. The settlement calls for the complete elimination of chemical weapons in Syria. Within this framework, the chemical weapons possessed by the Assad regime will be handed over to and come under the control of the international community. There are specific timelines, however. Damascus has to submit, within a week (by 21 September 2013), a comprehensive listing of its chemical weapons. Damascus must also provide the Organization for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) with an immediate and unfettered right to inspect any and all production and storage sites in Syria. International inspectors will be on the ground no later than November 2013, Secretary of State Kerry said. According to Kerry, a stated goal within the framework is to complete the destruction and removal and/or removal by halfway through 2014. Should these attempts fail, a military option will remain on the table, Washington said.
Russia, a key backer of the beleaguered regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and principal supplier of weapons, has an interest in a political settlement, as Moscow currently maintains a naval facility at the Syrian port of Tartus. It is Russia’s only military foothold in the region, and has also caused consternation in Tel Aviv. Syria is the largest buyer of Russian weapons in the Middle East. Arms contracts with Russia amount to at least US$3Bn to US$5Bn, Russia’s RIA Novosti news agency reported in July 2013.
Immediately after the “egregious use” of chemical weapons against Syrian citizens near Damascus on 21 August, with the loss of hundreds of civilian lives, President Obama threatened to order strikes against Syria. Washington, on the basis of human, geospatial, and communications intelligence, believed that the Syrian military was responsible for attacking opposition areas with rockets or artillery shells carrying chemical warfare agents. Early September reports said that the regime in Damascus was responsible for the attacks that were aimed at clearing their enemy from strategic parts of Damascus. French President François Hollande called for immediate intervention. Downing Street warned the Syrian President that he would face consequences for the (not spontaneous) chemical gas attack by Syrian forces near Damascus. However, Prime Minister David Cameron faced heavy opposition following a decision by the British Parliament not to participate in any military action against Syria, leaving, in the West, the US isolated with France. Meanwhile, the US Congress is divided over whether to authorise military strikes against Syria as a clear response to the use of chemical weapons against civilians.
However, in August opposition groups in Syria warned that every passing day reduced the effectiveness of military intervention, as the government in Damascus and the Syrian armed forces would be able to prepare their own measures against any attack. Also, London warned that the five-day gap between the attack and the inspectors’ visit might have allowed the Assad regime the opportunity potentially to tamper with evidence and continue shelling the area to destroy remnants of the chemical weapons that were used.
So what are the options of a military strike if political efforts fail? Potential target lists have being reviewed in recent weeks and various Western military assets pre-positioned. The US Navy now has four “Arleigh Burke” class destroyers in the Eastern Mediterranean in addition to the Nimitz Carrier Strike Group on station in the Red Sea and the Truman Carrier Strike Group in the Gulf of Oman. Land attack cruise missiles launched from the destroyers have a range of over 1,000nm (1,850km). Cruise missile strikes are a likely option, avoiding air strikes by manned aircraft. The latter could be endangered by Syria’s strong air defence assets, although B-2 stealth bombers, perhaps from Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri, would be able to evade those assets. Syria could counter-attack with long-range anti-ship missiles received from Russia. The 72 Yakhont missiles delivered by Moscow equip one Bastion coastal battery comprising 18 mobile launchers each carrying two Yakhont missiles capable of striking surface targets at a range of 300km. The missile carries a 200kg warhead. Russia claims that the missile system will “enable Syria to protect its entire coast from a possible seaborne attack.” With these parameters, the missiles could put at risk elements of the US Navy’s Sixth Fleet patrolling in the Eastern Mediterranean.
As a consequence, missile launch sites, associated C2 facilities, and missile- and gun-based air defence systems could be the top priority targets during the first minutes of a strike from the sea. In addition to the establishment of a ‘no-fly’ zone to prevent the Syrian government from using its air power to strike rebels on the ground and to re-supply isolated bases around the country, cruise missile strikes could be undertaken to destroy chemical weapon sites primarily located in the western part of Syria. However, striking the chemical weapons production facilities near Homs, Latakia, Al Safir, and Hama could result in a leakage of toxic chemicals that could lead to significant local damage.
Syrian Air Force bases and command centres located in the complex landscape between Homs and Damascus might also be engaged as a warning. Possible targets near Damascus include the Mezzeh Air Base, the Marj Ruhayyil military base, and at least three Army division/brigade-level headquarters. Unmanned aircraft could be another option, but only few long-range, long-endurance systems deployable with precision-guided ammunitions are believed to be in the region. Most of them remain on station in the Middle East and central Asia to respond to emerging threats in Yemen, Pakistan, and the Horn of Africa. If more firepower is needed, the two US aircraft carriers could launch air strikes.
French air power could also play a part. The French aircraft carrier “Charles de Gaulle” is currently in the western Mediterranean, while French Rafale and Mirage combat aircraft can also operate from Al-Dhahra Air Base in the United Arab Emirates. According to a source close to French Defence Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, the aircraft carrier could reach the Mediterranean theatre somewhere between Cyprus and Syria, joining US ships already on station, which, however, was denied by the Staff of the French Armed Forces. “The carrier is presently docked and has received no order”, said Col. Gilles Jarron, Spokesman of the Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces who denies that such a decision has been taken.
Looking forward, consider the successful Israeli military attack on a munitions storage facility some 15km inland from the Syrian port of Latakia on 5 July 2013. This munitions cache was believed to be used to store the Bastion coastal defence variant of the P-800 Yakhont anti-ship missile system Russia had delivered to Syria. Damascus claimed that Israeli forces either conducted an air strike or employed long-range missiles fired from an Israeli Navy ship operating in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea. Moscow claimed the attack was carried out by Israeli combat aircraft operating from inside Turkish airspace – a claim subsequently denied by Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu. In the meantime it is clear that the Israeli Air Force conducted the attack using precision-guided munitions such as the GBU-39 Small Diameter Bomb (SDB). In conclusion, partially-successful military intervention by the West could make the situation even worse.