Syria's Readiness for Attack in Question

Its aging defense system is already strained by brutal civil war

ByABC News
August 29, 2013, 7:07 PM

MOSCOW Aug. 30, 2013— -- While Syria has been upgrading its aging defense system in recent years, it will be severely tested if a barrage of American-made missiles are fired at the country. The question is, How will Syria fare?

Syria boasts an integrated system that covers much of the most populous and strategic parts of the country. But is all that hardware in working condition after two and a half years of war? Does the Syrian military have the manpower and expertise to run the system, or is it stretched thin by the conflict? Can Syria still deploy blanket coverage since there are now pockets of the country out of its control? Did Israel's strike inside Syria this year reveal Syrian vulnerability?

Russia's Interfax news agency quoted a confident, if unnamed, "military diplomatic source" on Tuesday who predicted "no easy victory" if "the U.S. Army together with NATO launches an operation against Syria. Buk-M2E multirole air and missile complexes and other air defense systems are capable of making a fitting reply to aggressors."

Experts aren't so sure.

What Does Assad Have?

Estimates by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), Jane's and the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) of Assad's pre-war defense capabilities included 365 to 550 combat aircraft (50% of which CSIS estimates may be left now with questions about pilot capability); 25 air defense brigades with some 120 to 150 surface-to-air missile batteries (most aging or obsolete); and an array of more modern short-range surface-to-air weapons, including thousands of shoulder-launched MANPADS.

Syria has purchased a highly advanced S-300 system from Russia, which can intercept targets at a much longer range and higher altitude than anything currently in Syria's arsenal. But it hasn't been delivered yet, and even if it arrived tomorrow, it would take months to set up and properly train Syrians to use.

One of the Syrian military's most potent assets are its Bastion coastal defense missiles, which Assad bought from Russia in the last few years. They could strike ships in the Mediterranean and would effectively push back the distances from which foreign ships would launch missiles used in any attack. Part of the system are Yakhont anti-ship missiles, which were reportedly Israel's target when it bombed a Syrian depot in July.

According to Sean O'Connor, a Jane's contributor and expert on air defense systems, the surface-to-air batteries and radar sites throughout the country provide overlapping coverage throughout most of the territory, though the system remains more vulnerable in its eastern half. He noted, however, that the Soviet-era systems are vulnerable to complex attacks because each one can only engage a single target at a time.

How Well Could Syria Defend Itself Against U.S.-Led Attack?

Experts agree that Syria's defenses are much larger, better deployed, more advanced and much better trained than Libya's, which the U.S.-led coalition quickly obliterated. Experts also agree the U.S. would still be able to take them out, albeit with significant firepower. Tony Cordesman of CSIS, writing in May about the possibility of enforcing a no-fly zone (not what the U.S. and its allies are said to be leaning toward now) suggested, "It would take a massive U.S. air and cruise missile attack to suppress it quickly."