2012-07-14 By Lt. General (Retired) Gaviard
Last June, in the backdrop of the growing number of casualties in Syria, the French President did not rule out the possibility of a military intervention. As a recent poll showed, the majority of the French public is in favor of an armed solution to the conflict.
However, the idea of a military intervention in this country is subject to a prior UN resolution that China and Russia are still blocking. Despite these two solid vetoes, it would be interesting to analyze the military means that could be engaged, if a resolution were to be passed.
What might be possible? What hypothesis for intervention are feasible?
Among these hypotheses, it is clear that any intervention would be accomplished in the framework of a coalition of several European nations with simply an American logistical support. Indeed, the U.S. armed forces are more preoccupied by their own disengagement from Afghanistan and the upcoming presidential elections.
However, a possible participation in the coalition of Saudi, Qatari, Emirati or even Turkish forces could be explored. The political, but also military weights of Turkey would be important in the success of this operation which would be placed under NATO command, since Turkey is still very attached to NATO.
Another important presupposition deserves our attention: no western ground forces, except for Special Forces, will be engaged regardless of the actual capabilities of the rebel Syrian army.
The lessons learned from Afghanistan almost rule out any ground intervention by western countries in a Muslim country.
With these hypotheses in mind, what credible capabilities might be used?
Drawing from the operations undertaken in Libya, naval and air forces with the support on the ground of a limited number of Special Forces should constitute the backbone of the coalition’s military capabilities.
The naval forces of the multinational coalition would be positioned to ensure the success of the embargo as well as blocking the Mediterranean front of Syria. The Syrian navy has submarines and vessels (several surface combatants) but they would be no match to a very superior coalition in that domain.
However, the Syrian anti-ship missiles, of which several of them were recently supplied by Russia, represent a very serious threat, that would require swift scrambling or destruction. This serious threat would translate in the placing the carrier battle group and especially the aircraft carrier(s) at a reasonable distance of the Syrian shores.
Air capabilities, by their flexibility and reversibility, should also be given priority.
Their mission would first consist in ensuring air superiority in order to obtain a complete freedom in the sky and ensure that no attack on civilian population by Syrian aircrafts and helicopters take place.
Unfortunately, the Syrian anti-aerial capabilities are numerous and effective.
The recent destruction of a Turkish reconnaissance plane most likely by the Syrian anti-aircraft missiles (DCA) is a testament to that.
In this context, the coalition’s aerial forces should, in the first phase, focus on a spatio-temporal superiority.
Italy and Turkey have in their arsenal anti-radar armament, but will these capabilities be sufficient against mobile elements?
In short, the coalition could find itself in front of a similar operation than the one it faced in 1999 in Kosovo.
An alternative solution could be to request an American engagement via their Tomahawk cruise missiles along with their F-22 stealth fighters.
These planes, undetectable to radars, could penetrate into the enemy anti-aerial defenses, destroy these sites all the while informing in real-time the more “classical” planes of the coalition on the positioning of the residual anti-air defenses in order to facilitate their destruction.
The Americans without engaging themselves in an offensive fashion could operate several missions of this type during the conflict’s first phase given that the initial engagements receive a big share of media and political attention.
In this condition, the engagement could only be achieved via an American command and in all likelihood in the framework of NATO.
The second mission of the coalition’s aerial forces would consist in granting support on the ground to the rebel Syrian forces.
However, Bashar al-Assad ground forces are well positioned in towns and cities, and providing support in urban areas could be a difficult mission for the air forces considering the possible collateral damages and the fact that the Syrian forces use human shields.
These very sensitive missions would necessitate an adapted armament that only the British forces possess. In these conditions, the coalition’s support intervention would be primarily focused in extra-urban zones and would necessitate the support of Special Forces on the ground.
The third mission would consist in the destruction of the Syrian power, and command and logistics centers.
This mission of attrition less visible but longer in time would be very efficient. The enemy’s political-military power structure rendered disorganized by pinpointed strikes deep into its apparatus would crumble swiftly.
All of these missions, including the naval ones, would necessitate precise and real-time intelligence capacities on various targets and refined analysis in order to root out disguised and well protected targets.
However, the European forces come out very short in this domain, as the Libyan operation has shown us.
The crucial lack of effective drones, for example, has been widely pointed out after this intervention.
It is also important to note that the coalition equipment should be based in Cyprus and Crete or perhaps in Turkey and that air-refueling planes would bring in the necessary reach that is indispensable for the achievements of these long missions.
In this domain, the European forces would rely mostly on American capabilities just like it was the case in all of the latest large-scale operations.
What about the offensive means of cyber defense that could disrupt or even destroy the Syrian information command and control networks that do not exist in Europe which is only owned by the United States?
In conclusion, a credible intervention in Syria, exclusively limited to naval and aerial forces for reasons developed above, would be in all likelihood impossible without the military participation of the United States or that of Turkey.
This analysis indirectly points out to the limits of the European forces intervention capacities and more particularly that of France which has serious shortcomings in all of the aforementioned domains but also in intelligence capacities, drones, precise armament in urban areas, air-refueling, modern tactical transport planes as well as cyber-defense capacities.
In practice, an intervention à la Bengazi like the one undertaken in March 19 2011 by the Rafale in order to rescue the city’s population from a genocide, in which the French forces were the first one to engage would be simply impossible today in Syria.
Let us hope that our leaders will take this into account when they draft the upcoming white paper and the future military program law project!
General (2s) Jean-Patrick Gaviard. Former Chief of the Armed Operations.
The original article appeared in French in Le Monde
(General Gaviard is referring to the new French Administration and shaping a new military strategy and shaping requirements and support for that strategy.)
For other recent pieces on the website dealing with the Syrian challenge see