In an interview on Hezbollah’s Al Manar, Syria’s strongman Bashar Assad hinted on Wednesday that Syria – or what’s left of it – had taken possession of its first delivery of Russian S-300 anti-aircraft missiles. The S-300 is a game changing weapon that enables Syria to target Israeli and regional commercial airliners. There is also the very real risk that Syria will transfer the missiles to Hezbollah (as it has already done with other sophisticated military hardware) or that the missiles will fall into the hands of extremist Sunni militias battling the beleaguered Alawite regime and their Shiite allies.
Clearly, the missiles in question are useless in the context of the Syrian civil war. The rebels have no aircraft and even if they did and assuming they could find someone to fly them, Assad’s current anti-aircraft capabilities can quite easily dispatch the threat as evidenced by last year’s downing of a Turkish F-4 Phantom. The delivery of the S-300 is meant to convey Russia’s determination not to allow Assad’s regime to fall and it is Assad’s way of telling Israel and NATO that he still has powerful allies and will not hesitate to use all weapons at his disposal to protect his hegemony.
The S-300 is an extremely sophisticated weapons platform requiring many components to be operational. Even if Assad’s boasts prove accurate, it is unlikely that all of the components necessary for the S-300’s functionality have been delivered and in any event, crews have to be trained. This provides Israel (and NATO should it choose to remove its head from the sand) with time to formulate strategies to deal with the provocative escalation.
Israel, while determined to stay out of Syria’s civil war, has made clear that it will do all that is necessary to protect its citizens from external threats be they from Syria, Iran or Hezbollah. In January, Israeli warplanes struck a Syrian chemical and biological weapons research facility as well as a Syrian military convoy transporting sophisticated SA-17 anti-aircraft missiles bound for Hezbollah. The Syrians didn’t get the message the first time requiring the Israelis to launch two additional military operations in May which resulted in the destruction of long-range, Iranian made surface-to surface Fateh-110 missiles that were slated to be delivered to Hezbollah.
The delivery of the S-300 changes the strategic balance and threatens to further inflame the region. As Assad becomes more desperate and his hold on power becomes more tenuous, he will resort to deadlier use of force. When the fighting broke out some two years ago, Assad, cognizant of the West’s inaction vis-à-vis Iran’s brutal suppression of popular dissent in 2009, borrowed chapter and verse from the Islamic Republic’s tactics and unleashed his goons on the local population. When this tactic backfired, he upped the ante and adopted the techniques of his serial killer father employing heavy weaponry including tanks, artillery and aircraft to subdue his foes.
But these measures failed to produce the desired results and Assad began utilizing chemical weapons. Fearing a U.S. or possibly NATO response, Assad initially employed his unconventional arsenal sparingly and haltingly, testing the waters. Once Assad realized that Obama’s red line was nothing more than empty rhetoric, chemical weapons became an integral part of his offensive strategy.
Assad, by word and deed, has demonstrated a propensity to escalate violence in direct correlation to the threat assessment to his hold on power. We’ve already witnessed Assad transition from unleashing Basij type paramilitaries on defenseless civilians to use of chemical weapons. It is not out of the realm of possibility that Assad would resort to the “Samson Option” should he feel sufficiently threatened. More chilling is the prospect of chemical and biological agents and their delivery mechanisms falling into the hands of Hezbollah or Al-Qaida.
While Russia, China, Iran and Hezbollah continue to buttress Assad, the free world led by the United States seems incapable of formulating a coherent policy. The reluctance to take action given our ill fated experience with Iraq and Afghanistan is quite understandable. But those conflicts involved nation building which inexorably led to deeper involvement and casualties. Our interests in Syria are quite different. There are no good guys and bad guys in Syria’s quagmire, only bad guys and worse guys. Our goals should therefore be limited to the destruction of Syria’s biological and chemical capabilities as well as its long-range, surface-to-surface missiles thus ensuring that most of the violence is contained within Syria.
There have also been calls to arm the rebels. Naturally, such a move must proceed with caution as many of the rebel groups have been radicalized and despise the West as much, if not more than Assad. If moderate rebel groups – to the extent that moderation can be found in the Arab world – can be identified, then arming them would be in our interest and would pose no risk to the lives of our service members.
There are no easy solutions and quick fixes to the crisis in Syria. It seems to be going from bad to worse and in the absence of any meaningful Western action, Assad and his Shiite allies are becoming increasingly more aggressive, menacing and expansionist. It is time for the United States to assume its leadership position in the world and in conjunction with our allies adopt a multilateral approach to effectively deal with the Syria-Hezbollah-Iran axis. Failure to take decisive action now could lead to devastating consequences later.
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