Just How Deadly Is Assad’s Arsenal?
From anti-aircraft guns to chemical weapons, a close look at what Syria's strongman has up his sleeve.
Last week, the Wall Street Journal reported that Syria's government has been moving its stockpile of chemical weapons -- thought to be the world's largest. It is not clear whether the regime is preparing to use them or simply trying to keep them out of rebel hands, but either way the news was disturbing: The use of chemical weapons would radically escalate a conflict that has already claimed more than 10,000 lives, and the prospect of unsecured stores of nerve agent raises serious proliferation concerns. As Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, warned American lawmakers in March: "We need to be especially alert to the fate of Syria's chemical weapons. They must stay exactly where they are."
With the exception of reports that the CIA and other foreign intelligence agencies are covertly providing arms to Syrian rebels, the United States has been unwilling or unable to take military steps to stop the slaughter of protesters. That could well change in the event that Bashar al-Assad's regime deployed chemical weapons -- the pressure for international action would certainly increase dramatically -- but any air campaign, like the one that helped oust Libyan dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi last year, would have to face Syria's anti-aircraft systems, which have grown more advanced in the last five years thanks in large part to sales from Russia.
Last week, the Wall Street Journal reported that Syria’s government has been moving its stockpile of chemical weapons — thought to be the world’s largest. It is not clear whether the regime is preparing to use them or simply trying to keep them out of rebel hands, but either way the news was disturbing: The use of chemical weapons would radically escalate a conflict that has already claimed more than 10,000 lives, and the prospect of unsecured stores of nerve agent raises serious proliferation concerns. As Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, warned American lawmakers in March: “We need to be especially alert to the fate of Syria’s chemical weapons. They must stay exactly where they are.”
With the exception of reports that the CIA and other foreign intelligence agencies are covertly providing arms to Syrian rebels, the United States has been unwilling or unable to take military steps to stop the slaughter of protesters. That could well change in the event that Bashar al-Assad’s regime deployed chemical weapons — the pressure for international action would certainly increase dramatically — but any air campaign, like the one that helped oust Libyan dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi last year, would have to face Syria’s anti-aircraft systems, which have grown more advanced in the last five years thanks in large part to sales from Russia.
Meanwhile, Assad’s assault on the rebels — with armor, artillery, and aircraft — continues unabated. Building on FP’s earlier analysis, here is a detailed look at just how dangerous Syria’s arsenal is:
The latest estimates say that the Assad regime has hundreds of tons of mustard gas, a blister agent, and large stockpiles of sarin and possibly VX, both of which are nerve agents — all of which can be launched by Scud missiles, artillery, or aircraft, according to Charles Blair, a specialist in chemical and biological weapons at the Federation of American Scientists. “I’ve heard that Syria has 100 to 200 missiles with nerve agents loaded and ready to go, but that seems extreme,” said Blair, noting that the nerve agents are usually stored separately from the weapons and that exact estimates about the size of the regime’s stockpile are almost impossible to come by.
Although the U.S. government has released only vague estimates as to the size of Syria’s chemical and biological weapons stockpile, Dempsey told lawmakers in March that the arsenal was “100 times the magnitude we experienced in Libya.” Libya acceded to the international Chemical Weapons Convention in 2004 and had largely destroyed its useful stockpile of such weapons by the time Qaddafi’s regime fell in 2011, according to Blair.
“Outside of the people who actually made and have guarded this stuff, I doubt that anyone could answer your question with any amount of accuracy,” said Amy Smithson, a senior fellow with the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies.
Although Assad’s stockpiles are thought to be considerable, Blair believes the dictator is unlikely to deploy them because using chemical weapons against civilians would only “build support for international intervention.”
“I think they are moving them to protect the weapons from a preemptive attack by Israel,” Blair said, or because information about the locations of the weapons — which he called the “top gems” of the Syrian military — have been compromised by high-level defectors from the Syrian army.
Aram Nerguizian, an expert on the Syrian military with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, agreed, saying that Syria has so far restrained itself from using the most potent weapons in its arsenal, such as fixed-wing bombers and its larger multiple-launch rocket systems, against the rebels for fear of fueling international outrage, the way Qaddafi’s government did in Libya. “You haven’t had the utilization of mass airpower or mass artillery,” such as guided rockets, he said. “If airpower is a red line, using chemical weapons would go well beyond any red line.”
“I’m more concerned about a direct strike against the regime or other military actions,” said Nerguizian. “Those are the kinds of things that would really make units [guarding the chemical weapons] abandon their posts and expose chemical or biological weapons and major SAM and other systems to acquisition by outlaw third parties. We often hear we need to intervene to secure those chemical weapons. The reality is, if we intervene, we’re going to destabilize a lot of the safeguards” keeping those weapons safe.
Blair agreed, saying that it would likely take tens of thousands of people to guard Syria’s chemical weapons should the regime crumble, saying, “any cohesive plan that secured all [chemical munitions] sites” would be difficult to implement.
Syria has invested in upgrading its 1970s air defense systems since the Israeli attack on a suspected nuclear facility outside the city of Deir ez-Zour in 2007, buying at least 36 SA-22 mobile air defense systems from Russia. The SA-22 was developed in the 1990s and 2000s and comes equipped with its own target-acquisition and tracking radars, along with 12 radio-guided medium-range surface-to-air missiles and two 30 mm auto-cannons for close-in engagements. The system is designed to protect ground troops, cities, and more advanced, high-altitude surface-to-air-missiles. An SA-22 might have been used to down a Turkish reconnaissance jet flying off the Syrian coast last month. Still, these missile systems, with a range of about 12 miles, can be handled by U.S. fighter jets using a combination of radar jamming and HARM missiles, which have a range of 60 miles.
Russia may also have provided Syria with SA-17 self-propelled medium-range air defense missiles. These are an upgraded version of the 1970s-vintage SA-6s that shot down U.S. Air Force Capt. Scott O’Grady’s F-16 over Bosnia in 1996. Like the SA-22, a big advantage of these weapons is that they are mobile, meaning they can briefly turn on their radars, fire at an enemy aircraft, and move before they can be targeted by enemy bombers. Still, while these weapons, with their 16 mile range, can deter jets flying at low or medium altitudes, they could be overcome by a well-coordinated air attack using “enormous force,” according to Nerguizian.
More worrisome are reports that Syria has ordered SA-10 (known as S-300s in Russia) long-range, high-altitude surface-to-air missiles that are some of the most advanced in the world. Some variants of this missile have a range exceeding 200 miles. As one Air Force intelligence officer who did not want to be identified puts it, “You wouldn’t send a fighter against an [SA-10 series missile]. It could reach out and touch you before you could hit it with a HARM.” The good news is that Russia has apparently declined to ship the missiles to Syria.
The Syrian army has also purchased one of Russia’s newest shoulder-fired air defense missiles, the SA-24 Grinch version of the Igla missile. The heat-seeking missile entered Russian service in 2004 and has a range of up to 11,000-feet, a top speed of Mach 2.3, and is designed to overcome modern countermeasures. While the relatively short-ranged Grinch missiles might not be much of a threat to NATO warplanes, they could pose a serious threat if they fall into the hands of terrorists who could use them to target civilian airliners.
Besides these modern systems, Syria defends its capital with the long-range, 40-year-old SA-5 Gammon antiaircraft missile and the SA-6 medium range missile. NATO forces have become quite adept at evading these systems after decades of flying against them around the world. (Click here to read a description of what it’s like to man an older Syrian air defense battery.)
“What you have is a combination of low-altitude and medium-altitude systems that are relatively modern to very modern and those do fill a significant gap in the Syrian air defense structure,” said Nerguizian. “They don’t compensate for the fact that Syria’s SA-5s are aging systems and heavily centralized and static and geared toward air defense against Israel, but they do send an important message that any air operations against the Syrian military will not be easy and will require contingencies for a potential loss of aircraft by an opposing force. Do they have the best air defense system in the region? No. Do they have enough to make any air operations against them really challenging? Yes.”
Barry Watts, a former fighter pilot and air power analyst with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, is more dismissive of Syria’s air defenses. “It’s older Soviet equipment for the most part. Qaddafi and company had some SA-5s and I can remember a lot of discussion about that, but it was a really old system and the NATO guys pretty much took them out and that was the end of that,” said Watts. “I don’t think it would be difficult or a stretch for us to do if we decided to it. I think the issue is this administration is not interested in starting another war in the Middle East.”
Although chemical weapons and air defense systems may be the most potent weapons in Damascus’s arsenal, the Syrian military has used a host of older Soviet and Russian gear to suppress the uprising.
The Syrian army has been forced to use its fleet of Soviet-designed armored personnel carriers — mostly BMP-1s — to fight the rebels, who have become increasingly adept at destroying these vehicles with roadside bombs and armor-piercing rocket propelled grenades. In fact, because of this vulnerability, Soviet and Russian troops made it standard procedure to ride on top of BMP-1s in Afghanistan and Chechnya lest they be caught inside if a bomb or RPG penetrated the vehicles’ light armor, igniting the BMP’s high-explosive ammunition and its fuel tank, which sits inside the troop compartment.
The majority of the Syrian army’s main battle tanks are Soviet T-72s that were designed in the 1970s. For all this tank was feared when it was first deployed in the late 1970s, the ones Iraq fielded during Operation Desert Storm were soundly defeated by American M1A1 Abrams tanks. Still, the T-72 has much better armor than the BMPs and other armored personnel carriers, allowing it to better withstand attacks by the rebels while punishing them with its 125 mm main gun. The tanks can be defeated by well-trained infantry, however, if they take advantage of the vehicles’ lack of external visibility and maneuverability in urban settings. That’s likely why Assad’s tanks have reportedly been escorted by soldiers on foot.
While the Syrian government may not be using its heaviest rockets against the rebels yet, it has been using the world’s largest mortar system, the Soviet-made M240 “Tulip” breech-loading mortar system. Originally designed to take out NATO bunkers during the Cold War, the Tulip has been used to lob massive, five-foot-long, 240 mm mortar rounds onto civilian populations, including in the Syrian city of Homs. Here’s a video of it in action.
And that’s not all: The U.S. State Department has posted photos suggesting that the Syrian army has positioned its Soviet-built D-30 122 mm towed howitzers outside of several cities. The D-20 dates to the 1960s and can fire a rocket-assisted artillery shell up to 21 miles. The State Department also published pictures of what may be Syria’s Soviet-made self-propelled 2S1 Gvozdika122 mm howitzer, which uses the same gun as the D-30 system. The State Department photos also show what might be the self-propelled 2S3 Akatsiya 152 mm self-propelled howitzer, which is capable of firing chemical weapons, anti-personnel shells, and laser-guided high-explosive shells.
Assad’s army may have also parked Soviet-designed BM-21 Grad rocket launchers around Homs, according to the State Department. The Grad dates to the 1960s and consists of 40 launch tubes sitting in the back of a six-wheeled truck that can fire two 120 mm unguided rockets per second up to 20 miles. The Grad is an evolution of the World War II-era Soviet Katyusha rocket, a weapon sometimes fired into Israel from southern Lebanon. The three-meter-long Grad rocket is not very accurate, but it can carry everything from high explosives to mines, radio jammers, chemical weapons, and cluster bomblets. These rockets have been used for decades by forces that just want to batter large areas. (Its name, Grad, means “hail” in Russian).
LOUAI BESHARA/AFP/Getty Images
In addition to pummeling civilian centers with tanks, artillery, and mortars, the Assad regime has reportedly used its Soviet-built, Mi-24 Hind attack helicopters, along with Mi-8 and Mi-17 Hip transport helicopters outfitted as gunships. As you can see in this video, the Mi-8/Mi-17 can carry quite a bit of firepower. Still, the Mi-24 is even more ferocious, armed with a 23 mm main auto-cannon and a mix of dozens of S-8 rockets, the AT-6 antitank rocket, and up to 2,000 pounds of bombs carried on its stub wings.
It’s also heavily armored, with the fuselage capable of withstanding hits from .50 caliber ammunition. In fact, some argue that the Hind is so good at suppressing ground fighters that the Soviet war in Afghanistan was only swayed in favor of the mujahideen once the CIA began to send the insurgents shoulder-fired Stinger missiles to deal with Soviet Mi-24s. Russia is reportedly trying to ship three Hinds that it repaired back to Syria — along with an air-defense system — a move that has been met with widespread international criticism.
So far, Syria is not thought to have used its Soviet- and Russian-made fighter jets. Of these, the most advanced are the newly purchased Mig-29 Fulcrums, a Mach 2 fighter first fielded by the Soviets in the 1980s to achieve air superiority against U.S. jets like the F-15 Eagle and F-16 Viper. Although the MiG-29 is a relatively new airplane, the Fulcrum did not perform well against NATO fighters in the former Yugoslavia and Iraq. Should the Syrian air force begin attacking the rebels with fast jets, it would likely use its Su-24 Fencers and Su-22 Fitter supersonic ground attack jets, which were built by the Soviets in the 1970s and early 1980s. That might not end well for Assad: Qaddafi used both to attack Libyan rebels, but the rebels were able to shoot down both with heavy anti-aircraft guns.
John Reed is a national security reporter for Foreign Policy. He comes to FP after editing Military.com’s publication Defense Tech and working as the associate editor of DoDBuzz. Between 2007 and 2010, he covered major trends in military aviation and the defense industry around the world for Defense News and Inside the Air Force. Before moving to Washington in August 2007, Reed worked in corporate sales and business development for a Swedish IT firm, The Meltwater Group in Mountain View CA, and Philadelphia, PA. Prior to that, he worked as a reporter at the Tracy Press and the Scotts Valley Press-Banner newspapers in California. His first story as a professional reporter involved chasing escaped emus around California’s central valley with Mexican cowboys armed with lassos and local police armed with shotguns. Luckily for the giant birds, the cowboys caught them first and the emus were ok. A New England native, Reed graduated from the University of New Hampshire with a dual degree in international affairs and history.
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