RAND Study Evaluates Airpower Options for Syria Intervention

For Release

August 30, 2013

A new RAND report examines five options for U.S. and allied military intervention in the Syrian civil war using airpower, and warns that destroying or grounding the Syrian air force is operationally feasible but would have only marginal benefits for protecting civilians.

The report also concludes that any airpower option would involve substantial risks of escalation by third parties, or could lead to greater U.S. military involvement in Syria.

The study by RAND, a nonprofit research organization, comes at a time when the Syrian government has been accused of using chemical weapons against opposition forces, accusations that drew threats of military action from the United States and other western nations.

“There are five basic missions the United States and its partners could take on to pursue the goals of protecting civilians, limiting or containing the conflict, or changing the course of the civil war,” said Karl Mueller, a senior political scientist and lead author of the report. “Choosing between them, or not doing any of them, should be based on a clear sense of the military realities and their potential rewards and risks.”

The five missions are:

  • Negate Syrian airpower by maintaining a “no-fly zone” over Syria, or by destroying the Syrian air force. The likely availability of nearby bases in Turkey and elsewhere make this a relatively easy task for the U.S. and allied forces, although maintaining a prolonged no-fly zone could impose significant burdens on the forces involved. Negating Syrian airpower would have only a marginal direct effect on protecting Syrian civilians, as most civilian casualties have been caused by government ground forces.
  • Neutralize Syria's extensive but mostly antiquated air defenses, which is well within the U.S. military's ability. Syria's integrated air defense system primarily consists of 1970s-era radar and surface-to-air missile technology, which U.S. pilots were able to overcome in Iraq and Serbia. This would begin with intense air and cruise missile strikes against Syrian air bases and air defense systems, followed by a longer hunt for mobile missiles. However, such an effort would be used to facilitate other operations, not an end in itself.
  • Create safe areas where Syrian civilians could be largely — but not completely — protected from air attack, artillery bombardment and direct ground attack by U.S. and allied air forces. Effectively protecting the civilians in these areas would require competent forces on the ground. If not provided by the U.S. and its allies, the forces would need to be provided by the Syrian opposition, in which case protecting safe areas would also amount to providing air cover for anti-regime forces.
  • Enable opposition forces to defeat President Bashar al-Assad's regime, using airpower similar to that employed by the U.S. to overthrow the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001. Such a mission would require the use of fighters, bombers and remotely piloted aircraft to strike Syrian army and other regime targets. The authors assess that the current balance of the war favors the regime, and that the opposition forces would require substantial military support to defeat Syrian ground forces and gain the upper hand. Such a mission, the authors warn, would help both desirable opposition groups and extremists. Moreover, there is a risk that a successful mission could lead to instability spilling over Syria's borders to Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq or beyond, and to widespread retribution against populations associated with the defeated regime.
  • Prevent the use of Syrian chemical weapons by using air attacks to strike Assad's chemical weapons stockpiles and their delivery systems, or deter future use of chemical weapons. Attacking or threatening to attack targets Assad values more than his chemical weapons stockpile would help avoid creating “use-it-or-lose-it” incentives for additional chemical attacks. The authors warn that while airpower could be used to reduce the Assad regime's ability or desire to launch large-scale chemical attacks, eliminating its chemical weapon arsenal would require a large ground operation.

“The U.S. and its allies can certainly conduct an operationally successful air campaign in Syria,” Mueller said. “But each of these aerial intervention options has the potential to escalate or expand the conflict, and could lead to unwelcome responses from Assad's allies or to wider or deeper U.S. military involvement. The next steps following an initial intervention should be central to any strategic planning for using airpower in Syria.”

The report, “Airpower Options for Syria: Assessing Objectives and Missions for Aerial Intervention,” can be found at www.rand.org. Its co-authors are Jeffrey Martini and Thomas Hamilton.

The report was supported through philanthropic contributions and conducted within the RAND Center for Middle East Public Policy, which brings together analytic excellence and regional expertise from across RAND to address the most critical political, social, and economic challenges facing the Middle East today.

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