In the event the U.S. intervenes in Syria, the opening shots will likely begin with cruise missile bombardments from the sea. But the U.S. has also prepared for a longer conflict, moving fighter aircraft into range by basing them in nearby Jordan. If called upon, they could support intercontinental bombers traveling thousands of miles to drop precision-guided munitions onto Assad’s forces.
Already Pres. Barack Obama’s national security advisers have raised the 1999 Kosovo War as one precedent for a potential Syrian air campaign. First-day strikes from warships would have to target, like in 1999, surface-to-air missile sites, communications hubs and military bases. U.S. submarines carried out similar strikes against Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. But Kosovo was close to NATO bases in Italy, and Libya had a long coastline while still being within range of bombers based in southern Europe.
Any war with Syria would have an entirely different set of physical constraints — surely being discussed over the next several days as Gen. Martin Dempsey meets in Jordan with generals from 10 nations; just as Assad’s forces attempt to shift the blame for the worst chemical attacks since the 1988 Halabja massacre.
Syria’s population centers and Assad’s military forces are deep inside the country’s interior, unlike Libya. In the Libyan war, NATO relied heavily on French Rafale jets flying from bases in southern Europe after the initial sea barrage. This doesn’t mean the U.S. is without many options should an intervention escalate past cruise missiles strikes. But it does make a U.S. air campaign harder.
In case of a Syrian war, the U.S. has instead gradually expanded U.S. forces in Jordan — building up troops, anti-air missile launchers and fighter aircraft in recent months. The result is an advance force that can bombard Syria from across the border, defend Jordan in case Assad attempts to counter-attack, while forming a logistical and basing backbone in case Washington decides to strengthen an intervention further.
Furthermore, if the U.S. attempt to establish safe havens for civilians against Assad’s chemical attacks, southern Syria may be the place to do it.
Largely, the Jordanian build-up was carried out under the auspices of the annual Eager Lion war games, which concluded in late June out of the sprawling Muwaffaq Salti Air Base east of Amman.
Over two weeks, Jordanian and U.S. forces conducted combined-arms exercises — with thousands of ground troops participating from the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit and the Army’s 1st Armored Division — backed up by M-1 tanks and AH-1 attack helicopters. Meanwhile, fighter aircraft practiced air-to-air combat and trained how to respond in case Syrian fighter pilots attempt to defect.
After Eager Lion concluded, the U.S. — unusually — kept some of those forces in Jordan. Among these include a squadron of F-16 fighters (a squadron normally comprises between 18 and 24 birds), which are capable of both intercepting Syrian fighters and dropping laser-guided smart bombs and air-to-ground missiles. A Patriot missile battery has been deployed to Jordan, which boosts the country’s air defense network in case of Syrian air or short-range ballistic missile attack. The Pentagon has not publicly said where these assets are deployed in Jordan but they are likely at Mafraq.
Around 1,000 U.S. troops have also remained in the country, forming an advance operations and logistics lilypad in the event of a prolonged air campaign over Syria — waiting to organize and plan for a sudden build-up of strike aircraft and drones.
Another option is basing aircraft at Incirlik Air Base in Turkey, which is a short hop away from the Syrian border. The U.S. would also be able to call on six short-range Harrier jump jets aboard the USS Kearsarge, which is believed to be sailing around the Red Sea and Gulf of Aqaba.
“I think we’re probably talking about several years, and therefore several rotations (of troops),” Gen. Dempsey told planners from the 1st Armored Division in Jordan on Aug. 15. “We haven’t actually put an end-date on it for that very reason — because it will depend how the situation evolves in Syria.”
Allied nations would also face restrictions on where they can base and fly. Aside from Jordan and Syria, the United Kingdom could base aircraft in Cyprus. France could also order Mirage and Rafale fighters to strike targets from their bases in the United Arab Emirates, but this would require long-range travel and mid-air refueling.
One of the Air Force’s most deadly weapons in the war against Gaddafi was the B-1 bomber. If needed, Obama could call on as few as two bombers to deliver more firepower than dozens of Jordan-based F-16s.
In February 2011, the 150-foot-long, swept-wing B-1 did just that in Libya. More than 100 Libyan targets were destroyed by a pair of B-1s that took off from their base in South Dakota. The trip was more than 12,000 miles, and lasted over four days with as much as 24 hours being spent attacking Gaddafi’s ground forces.
The Air Force also has another ultra long-range bomber, the stealthy B-2. Three of the 172-long bombers were used in the opening salvo against Gaddafi. Each are capable of dropping up to 80 500-pound bombs.
But the Air Force only keeps a handful of B-2 bombers available, as the birds also double as one of the U.S.’s primary nuclear strike platforms. Libya’s war planners had to practically beg for the Air Force to hand them over for single missions.
Any campaign, however, will have to rely on political calculations about each nation’s strategic interest in Syria. This will determine the precise forces used, the duration of bombing and the intensity. Bases in Turkey depend on Turkey’s willingness to go to war with Syria — this is by no means assured if the U.S. does.
Turkey supports a harder line against Assad. On Thursday, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said: “We call on the international community in this situation where the red line was crossed long ago to intervene as soon as possible.”
Turkey has several reasons for supporting tougher action against Syria. The war has forced a surge of refugees across the border into Turkey. Ankara also would like to see Iranian influence curtailed, of which an Assad defeat would be a major blow. “We always prioritize acting together with the international community, with United Nations decisions. If such a decision doesn’t emerge from the UN Security Council, other alternatives … would come onto the agenda,” Davutoglu said on Sunday.
But Ankara has less room to maneuver considering its dependence on Russian natural gas exports. If Turkey were to intervene directly in the conflict — opening up a second front against Assad — then it will have to suffer Russia’s ability to mess with the Turkish economy.
Soner Cagaptay, a Turkish political scientist for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, recently wrote that Turkish officials fear Russia could covertly aid the Kurdistan Workers Party, which has increased terrorist attacks inside Turkey, partly because Iran has allowed the group to use its territory as a base — as punishment for Turkish opposition to Assad.
“Taking into consideration Turkey’s fear of Russia, any Turkish military action against the Assad regime will have to be predicated on full NATO support and involvement,” Cagaptay wrote.
That’s by no means certain. Obama might not be willing to push an action in Syria to the point of cruise missile strikes from the sea, let alone escalate to an aerial campaign across the Jordanian border and with bombers launched from South Dakota. But even America’s most limited interventions have a nasty habit of turning into protracted wars.
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