Meet the Military Forces Gathering on Syria’s Doorstep
While the United States is ready to strike a handful of targets on the ground in Syria, any international conflict there will take place on a much larger stage. The entire region is full of a witches’ brew of military hardware from more than half a dozen nations with interests in the Syrian conflict. The ...
While the United States is ready to strike a handful of targets on the ground in Syria, any international conflict there will take place on a much larger stage. The entire region is full of a witches' brew of military hardware from more than half a dozen nations with interests in the Syrian conflict.
While the United States is ready to strike a handful of targets on the ground in Syria, any international conflict there will take place on a much larger stage. The entire region is full of a witches’ brew of military hardware from more than half a dozen nations with interests in the Syrian conflict.
The United States and France are prepared to strike the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from the Mediterranean Sea and a ring of air bases surrounding Syria. Meanwhile, three of America’s most powerful military allies — Britain, Turkey, and Israel — are publicly staying on the sidelines, albeit with their militaries primed to defend against any Syrian counterattack. Then there are Assad’s friends, Russia and Iran, both of which have military personnel on the ground in Syria.
Here’s a look at the mix of military forces facing Assad — and each other — in and around the Levant.
The United States already has Syria ringed with Patriot missile batteries in Jordan and Turkey and has four Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyers parked in the eastern Mediterranean Sea. This little fleet is likely armed with a mix of Tomahawk cruise missiles to attack ground targets in Syria and surface-to-air missiles capable of defending the ships from attempts to attack them by air.
If U.S. President Barack Obama does decide to fire a warning shot — as he has described any U.S. military action there — at Assad, these ships and their Tomahawks will likely play a major role.
In addition to the four destroyers, the United States may well have one of its four guided missile submarines prowling the waters near Syria. These subs used to carry massive Trident nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles. Over the last decade they saw their nuclear payloads removed and refitted to carry up to 154 Tomahawk cruise missiles in 22 of their 24 giant missile tubes. This class of ships saw its combat debut during the 2011 campaign to oust former Libyan dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi when the USS Florida fired more than 90 Tomahawks at targets in Libya.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Air Force’s fleet of spy planes that will likely track targets and intercept communications by Assad’s forces can operate out of NATO’s giant base at Incirlik, Turkey, and the U.S. bases along the Persian Gulf. Both Al Udeid air base in Qatar and Al Dhafra air base in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) already see a steady deployment of E-8 Joint STARS radar planes, along with U-2 Dragon Lady and RQ-4 Global Hawk spy planes that are all used to find ground targets. These Persian Gulf bases also regularly host RC-135 Rivet Joint electronic spy planes that snoop on enemy radio communications and radar transmissions, as well as B-1 Lancer heavy bombers and KC-135 and KC-10 tankers that would refuel the airborne armada.
Meanwhile, France says it is preparing for action against Syria and already has a detachment of cruise-missile-carrying fighter jets — three to six Mirage 2000s or Rafales — alongside the American planes at Al Dhafra in the UAE. The French Navy frigate Chevalier Paul, armed to the teeth with anti-aircraft and anti-missile missiles, is also said to be steaming toward the eastern Mediterranean, though the French government says the ship is merely conducting a training cruise.
Next among the major allied forces on Syria’s doorstep is Turkey, which has placed its military on alert and says it would support military action against Assad’s regime, which shot down a Turkish RF-4 Phantom fighter jet in 2012. Right now, it seems like all Turkey has said it will do to support strikes against Assad is offer the use of the NATO base at Incirlik to the United States.
If Turkey decides to play a more muscular role in strikes against Assad, its air force is likely the military branch that will carry it out. The Turkish air force is equipped with the SOM missile and the standoff land attack missile; both are long-range cruise missiles that are carried by the service’s 196 F-16 Falcon fighter jets. Turkey has also placed anti-aircraft missile batteries along its border with Syria to defend from attack by Assad’s missiles and aircraft.
Just as Turkey is on the sidelines, so is Syria’s southern neighbor Jordan, a nation that has zero desire to get involved in a conflict that could spill over its borders.
"Jordan will not be a launching pad for any military action against Syria," said Mohammad Momani, Jordan’s information minister on Aug. 28. Instead, the small nation sandwiched between Israel, Iraq, Syria, and Saudi Arabia is calling for a diplomatic solution to the fighting in Syria.
Still, Jordan isn’t taking any chances and is hosting American Patriot air defense missiles and a detachment of about 12 U.S. Air Force F-16 Falcon fighter jets. These American forces are there to protect Jordan from any attack by Assad’s forces and not to participate in strikes against Syria.
Next up are the British, who sent six Typhoon fighter jets to their base on Cyprus, RAF (Royal Air Force) Akrotiri. Then the British Parliament got involved and said that Britain can’t participate in any strike against Syria. It looks like the RAF’s insistence that these fighters are not going to participate in any strikes against Syria and are merely there to protect British facilities in the region is legit.
"This is a precautionary measure, specifically aimed at protecting UK interests and the defence of our Sovereign Base Areas at a time of heightened tension in the wider region," reads a British Defense Ministry statement on the deployment. "They are not deploying to take part in any military action against Syria."
Syria’s dwindling number of friends is also offering support.
Russia, Syria’s longtime ally and top weapons supplier, is urging the United States not to strike Syria and is sending the guided-missile cruiser Moskva and an unidentified anti-submarine ship from its Northern Fleet to the eastern Mediterranean. Still, Russian military officials insist this deployment is part of a normal training rotation and is not linked to the situation in Syria, reported Russia’s state-owned RIA Novosti news agency on Aug. 29. Russia’s only overseas naval base in located in the Syrian port of Tartus and is used to support Russia’s increasing number of naval patrols on the Mediterranean Sea.
The ship-routing deployment comes the same week that Russia’s Interfax news agency reported that the Kremlin is planning to evacuate personnel from its naval base at Tartus who would normally be used to support the vessels. An IL-62 cargo plane belonging to the Russian Emergency Ministry made a very quick overnight flight from Moscow to the Syrian port of Latakia on the night of Aug. 27, staying on the ground less than two hours to pick up dozens of Russians looking to get out of Syria.
Syria’s other main ally, Iran, is complicating matters by promising retaliation if the United States launches strikes against Syria.
Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari, commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, was quoted in the Iranian news outlet Tasnim as saying an attack on Syria "means the immediate destruction of Israel," USA Today reported.
Iran and Hezbollah, Iran’s proxy in Syria and Lebanon, are heavily involved in defending the Assad regime from the largely Sunni rebels fighting it. Iran doesn’t have any warships or major military facilities near Syria. However, the Quds force, Iran’s special unit responsible for conducting clandestine military operations overseas, has been helping the Syrian military fight the rebels for more than a year by providing training and materiel. While the vast majority of Syria’s military hardware comes from the former Soviet Union and China, Iran gives the Assad regime drones, ballistic missiles, artillery rockets, and anti-tank missiles.
As for Israel, while its leaders say it won’t participate in U.S.-led strikes on Assad, its air force has been striking targets inside Syria throughout the last year, usually hitting arms depots or weapons convoys in hopes of preventing some of Syria’s more advanced weapons from being shipped to terrorist organizations. As talk of a U.S. strike on Syria ramps up, the Israeli military has mobilized reserve forces, massing them on its northern border near Syria. Israeli government officials have said that Israel will punch back if Syria, Iran, or Hezbollah attacks it in response to American airstrikes.
"Those seeking to strike us will find us sharper and fiercer than ever," Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, Israel’s top military commander was quoted by the Washington Post as saying. "Our enemies must know we are determined to take any action needed to defend our citizens."
There you have it: an entire, heavily armed corner of the world on edge, a dictator desperately fighting for his life, and an Iran that might have something to prove. What could possibly go wrong?
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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