U.S. Weighs Syria Response
As Lawmakers Urge Action, White House Eyes Risks From Assad’s Air Defenses
WASHINGTON—Lawmakers pressed the Obama administration to intervene in Syria’s civil war, citing the regime’s alleged chemical-weapons use, as the White House weighed its response against a sobering fact: Damascus has developed a world class air-defense system.
That system, built, installed and maintained—largely in secret—by Russia’s military complex, presents a formidable deterrent as the White House draws up options for responding to a U.S. intelligence report released last week concluding that Damascus likely used chemical weapons on the battlefield.
Leading Democratic and Republican lawmakers on Sunday said they didn’t believe the U.S. should send American troops into Syria. They and the Obama administration are wary about U.S. involvement in another Middle East conflict after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But some called for a no-fly zone and more humanitarian aid.
Previously undisclosed details about Syria’s antiaircraft systems outline the evolution of one of the most advanced and concentrated barriers on the planet, developed to ward off U.S. and Israeli warplanes, say U.S. intelligence and defense officials. The Obama administration only sporadically intervened to try to stop its construction, the officials say.
In White House meetings about military options for Syria, Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, frequently singles out Mr. Assad’s air-defense prowess as the single biggest obstacle to U.S. intervention, according to current and former officials who participated in the briefings.
Advocates of military action believe the threat posed by Syria’s defenses is overstated by the Obama administration, in part to justify not taking action. Some have cited Israel’s successful bombing in January that targeted a suspected SA-17 antiaircraft missile shipment.
However, as Pentagon officials later learned, the Israeli planes never entered Syrian airspace.
Instead, the Israeli warplanes were flying over Lebanon when they executed what is called a “lofting” maneuver—using a sudden burst of speed and altitude to catapult a bomb across the border to the target about 10 miles inside Syria, according to a previously undisclosed U.S. account of the Israeli operation.
Israeli officials said the decision was made to bomb from the relative safety of Lebanese airspace for diplomatic as well as security reasons. The Israeli Embassy in Washington declined to comment.
Gen. Dempsey has told the White House that stealth aircraft and ship-based, precision-guided missiles could destroy many Syrian air-defense sites relatively quickly. But he has warned policy makers that mobile launchers would be harder to find and destroy and that their location among population centers likely would mean civilian casualties.
Officials believe any operation would also be costly and dangerous to U.S. personnel.
On Sunday, Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.), a sharp critic of Mr. Obama’s Syria policy, didn’t discuss those risks in arguing that the U.S. should support a no-fly zone with unmanned aircraft to protect civilians and rebels. Other lawmakers called for more humanitarian aid.
“We can get in and out. That’s not the issue,” said a senior U.S. official. “The issue is can you take out the entire air defense system and keep it down. That’s just completely a different kettle of fish.”
U.S. officials were aware of Russia’s involvement and tracked many of the upgraded systems during a period of rapid modernization after a 2007 Israeli airstrike on a suspected Syrian nuclear site. But the Americans rarely interfered, viewing Iran as the region’s larger threat and, under the Obama administration, initially pursuing improved ties with both Russia and Syria.
Obama administration officials say they raised their concerns with Moscow in their meetings even if they knew Russia was unlikely to respond.
Now, with evidence mounting that the Syrian regime has used at least small amounts of chemical weapons against opponents of President Bashar al-Assad, the consequences of policy choices from a prior decade may limit the ability of the U.S. and its allies to respond today.
President Barack Obama has set the use of chemical weapons as a “red line” that could trigger U.S. military involvement. Reluctant to intervene, however, the White House has called for a deeper international investigation into evidence pointing to the likelihood that Syrian forces have gassed their opponents.
“We knew the Syrians were bolstering their air defense systems. We saw this as a Syrian effort to deter Israeli incursions,” said one of the senior U.S. officials who helped oversee those efforts during Mr. Obama’s first term. “But we [the U.S.] would pay attention to it sporadically. We had to pick and choose. The main focus was Iran.”
U.S. officials believe Russia’s goal in helping Mr. Assad was to deter the North Atlantic Treaty Organization from intervening in Syria as the alliance did in Libya in 2011 and in Serbia in 1998, operations Moscow opposed.
U.S. officials believe Russian technicians are on hand with many of the Syrian air-defense units, providing technical assistance. The Russians, many employees of Russian defense contractors, repair broken equipment with components imported from Russia, the officials said.
Officials at the Russian embassy in Washington said they don’t discuss military and technical cooperation with other countries. But Moscow has denied any special relationship with Mr. Assad, arguing that Russia is supporting the principle of nonintervention.
The first air-defense deals between Russia and Syria date back decades. But Russia in recent years has stepped up shipments to modernize Syria’s targeting systems and make the air defenses mobile, and therefore much more difficult for Israel—and the U.S.—to overcome.
The U.S. detected Mr. Assad was seeking major air defense expansions after a series of foreign incursions, including the 2007 Israeli bombing of a suspected nuclear site at al Kibar; the February 2008 assassination in Damascus of Imad Mugniyah, a high-ranking Hezbollah military commander; and a September 2008 car bombing that U.S. officials say targeted a Syrian military intelligence facility.
Embarrassed by Israel’s ease of access to his country, Mr. Assad plunged into an effort to procure batteries of Russian interceptors and early warning systems. He arrayed them in overlapping concentric circles in and around population centers.
According to an internal U.S. intelligence assessment, in August 2008, Russia began shipping SA-22 Pantsir-S1 units to Syria. The system, a combination surface-to-air missile and 30 mm antiaircraft gun, has a digital targeting system and is mounted on a combat vehicle, making it easy to move. Today, Syria has 36 of the vehicles, according to the U.S. assessment.
In 2009, the Russians started upgrading Syria’s outdated analog SA-3 surface-to-air missile systems, turning them into the SA-26 Pechora-2M system, which is mobile and digital, equipped with missiles with an operational range of 17 miles.
The U.S. is particularly worried about another modernized system provided by Moscow—the SA-5. With an operational range of 175 miles, SA-5 missiles could take out U.S. planes flying from Cyprus, a key NATO base that was used during Libya operations and would likely be vital in any Syrian operation.
Since March 2011, when the rebellion against Mr. Assad started, Russia has continued to support the air-defense system, providing key components and replacement parts, and sending technicians to test it, U.S. officials say.
Officials suspect one of the Pechoras shot down a Turkish reconnaissance plane last June, an incident closely studied by the U.S. and cited as evidence the system hasn’t been degraded by the conflict.
Last November, U.S. intelligence agencies learned that a flight from Russia to Syria was carrying components for the SA-17 Grizzly antiaircraft system, according to U.S. officials, who say resupply flights continue.
The Pentagon decided it could do little to stop the shipments, reflecting Washington’s shifting views of Damascus and a lack of U.S. influence with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“A major focus has been on offensive weapons, not defensive,” a senior Obama administration said of the U.S.’s approach under Mr. Obama toward arms transfers to Syria.
Defense officials worried that raising U.S.-Russian tensions over Syria could prompt Moscow to retaliate by making it harder for the U.S. to use needed air and ground routes though Russian territory to withdraw military supplies from Afghanistan.
Pentagon officials concluded it wasn’t realistic to try to block all sales of air-defense systems. Instead, they decided to target what officials called “game changers”—the systems that most threaten Israel and the U.S.