WASHINGTON — Rebels fighting Syrian government forces have been urging the West to establish a no-fly zone over the country, but are getting little international support.
Western defense experts see difficulties in a no-fly mission, including troubles securing the skies over Syria, as Syrian air defenses must first be destroyed.
A no-fly zone is defined as airspace in which certain aircraft, especially military ones - such as warplanes and helicopter gunships - are forbidden to fly.
During the past 20 years, international coalitions have imposed and enforced no-fly zones over Bosnia for two years in the mid-1990s, and over northern and southern Iraq spanning the years 1991 to 2003. And just last year, NATO was involved for seven months in an air campaign that supported rebels fighting to oust Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.
Now rebels fighting the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad are calling for the establishment of a no-fly zone over Syria, but are getting scant global backing.
Syrian air defenses
Analysts said a difficult first step in implementing a no-fly zone would be to destroy the Syrian government’s air defense systems.
Retired Navy Captain Ben Renda, who flew aircraft patrolling the no-fly zone over northern Iraq in the late 1990s, said there are questions about the effectiveness of those Syrian defenses.
“There is a discussion about how robust Syrian IADs really are - the integrated air defenses,” he said. “How good the radars are? How good the surface-to-air missiles are and the anti-aircraft artillery systems? Are they integrated into the radars for detection and tracking? But in any case, regardless of what those fine points are, Syria is obviously much more capable than Libya,” said Renda.
Analysts said the bulk of Syria’s air defenses are either older Soviet models or more modern Russian systems. Moscow has been selling weapons to Damascus for decades.
Sean O’Connor, a military expert who writes for the British defense publication Jane’s, said many of Syria’s air defenses are fixed installations.
“Their main strength is simply the fact they have a lot of individual positions all over the country - mostly in the western half of the country,” he said, “because that is where most of the population is and that’s obviously where most of the threat to them would come from, be it from Israel in the south, Turkey in the north or from anyone trying to approach from the Mediterranean.”
Paul Smyth, a British defense expert and a former Royal Air Force navigator in a squadron that patrolled the no-fly zone in southern Iraq in the 1990s, said Syria also has more adaptable air defense weapons.
“The more modern, post-Soviet era, but still built in Russia, things like the SA-10, you are looking at mobile weapons, which are pretty capable and therefore a real concern because they have that combination of being able to move around the battlefield, and so pose a very direct threat to friendly air operations,” he said.
Syrian air power upgraded
Smyth also said over the years, Syria has upgraded its air defense systems, learning from its mistakes.
“You look at 2003 and again in 2007, the Israelis mounted surprise raids - one near Damascus in 2003 and another against an alleged nuclear facility in 2007. They did the raids ‘in and out’ without loss,” he said. “And no doubt that would have encouraged the Syrian air defense system to become a little bit better at what they do. And of course, although we may get mixed reports as to how good they are in reality, we can’t ignore the fact that only a couple of months ago, they shot down a Turkish air force jet, obviously off the coast,” said Smyth.
Defense analysts said concerns about the ability of the Syrian military in general and the air defense system in particular are one of the reasons why the international community has not fully supported the Syrian opposition groups.