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Russian military man Syrian air defenses

Russian military presence in Syria poses challenge to US-led intervention

Advisers deployed with surface-to-air systems bolster President Assad's defences and complicate outcome of any future strikes

Syria crisis – an
Assad regime military vehicle destroyed by rebels during clashes in
Bayada neighborhood, Homs province. Photograph: Associated Press

Russian military advisers are manning some of Syria's more sophisticated air defences – something that would complicate any future US-led intervention, the Guardian has learned.

advisers have been deployed with new surface-to-air systems and
upgrades of old systems, which Moscow has supplied to the Assad regime
since the Syrian revolution broke out 21 months ago.The depth and
complexity of Syria's anti-aircraft defences mean that any direct
western campaign, in support of a no-fly zone or in the form of punitive
air strikes against the leadership, would be costly, protracted and
risky. The possibility of Russian military casualties in such a campaign
could have unpredictable geopolitical consequences.Meanwhile,
near-daily atrocities have kept western governments under pressure to
act. A Syrian government air strike on a town near the central city of
Hama on Sunday killed dozens of civilians queueing for bread, according to human rights activists.Amateur
footage from Halfaya showed mangled human remains strewn along a street
where people had been blown off scooters and out of cars. One video
showed a boy with his feet blown off. Piles of corpses could be seen
beneath rubble outside a two-storey building the cameraman described as a
bakery. It was unclear how many bodies were in the smoking ruins.Human Rights Watch has previously accused the regime of targeting bakeries.
The group warned the Assad regime that such targeted bombing of
civilians represented war crimes. However, in the face of a Russian veto
at the UN security council, the international criminal court has not
had a mandate to investigate the atrocities committed by either side.
The UN has put the death toll at more than 40,000 as the war continues
to escalate.Turkish officials, who accurately predicted the
Syrian regime would use Scud missiles after several warplanes were shot
down by rebels, also believe President Bashar al-Assad
has twice come close to using chemical weapons including sarin, the
nerve gas. First, after the bombing of the regime's Damascus security
headquarters in July, which killed the president's brother in law, Assef
Shawkat, and then last month, after opposition forces made significant
gains.The Turks and western officials say there are signs Assad
sees chemical weapons as another step in the escalation of force, rather
than a Rubicon-crossing gamble that could end his regime. The US, UK,
France and Turkey have warned Syria that its use of such weapons would
trigger military retribution. But any such a response would be fraught
with difficulties.Air strikes against chemical weapon depots
would potentially disperse lethal gases over a vast area, triggering a
humanitarian disaster. US and allied special forces have been trained to
seize the air bases where the warheads are kept, but it is unclear what
the next step would be. It would be physically impossible to fly the
hundreds of warheads out of the country, while it would take thousands
of troops to guard the arsenal for what could be many months. In the
interim, those western troops could easily become the target of Islamist
groups fighting the government in Damascus.Any air strikes
against regime targets, in response to chemical weapon use, or any
attempt to create a no-fly zone to stop further bombing of refugee
camps, would require the suppression of Syria's formidable defences.
Those have been bolstered significantly since Israeli strikes on an alleged nuclear reactor site at al-Kibar in 2007 exposed holes, and again since the outbreak of the Syrian uprising in March 2011.The
upgrades were supplied by Moscow, which sees them as a bulwark against
western-imposed regime change and protection of a longstanding
investment in Syria. The country includes Russia's
biggest electronic eavesdropping post outside its territory, in
Latakia, and its toehold on the Mediterranean, a small naval base at
Tartus.Russian security and defence officials, who are
notoriously loth to publicly comment on their operations abroad, have
repeatedly denied providing explicit support for the Assad regime.Over
the weekend, the head of Russia's ground forces air defence, Major
General Alexander Leonov, told the Ekho Moskvy radio station: "Syria's air-defence system is a no-nonsense force. As a result, no one has ever used serious air combat power against it."That
"no-nonsense" force, the air defence command, comprises two divisions
and an estimated 50,000 troops – twice the size of Muammar Gaddafi's
force – with thousands of anti-aircraft guns and more than 130
anti-aircraft missile batteries.According to Jeremy Binnie, the
editor of Jane's Terrorism and Security Monitor, recent Russian
deliveries include Buk-M2 and Pantsyr-S1 (known to Nato
as SA-22) mobile missile launch and radar systems. Reports of the
shipment of the modern long-range S-300 have not been confirmed, and the
Syrian armed forces did not show off any S-300 missiles in a military
display this year. It is possible they have been delivered but are not
yet operational.Guy Ben-Ari, a senior fellow at the
Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies, said:
"They don't just sell the equipment. They also help man the crews and
train the crews. Sometimes there is just no domestic capacity to run
these systems, and that is the case in Syria where Syrian crews are not
capable of using the equipment to its full capacity."Sources
familiar with the Moscow-Damascus defence relationship confirmed the
presence of Russian air-defence crews inside Syria. Their deployment
would be a consideration when western contingency plans for Syria were
being considered, they said.Such a dense, layered and overlapping
air-defence system would require a huge air campaign, heavily reliant
on thousands of precision-guided missiles. The UK, France and other
American allies in Europe
used up their stocks of such weapons in Libya and although details are
classified there have been reports that they have not yet returned to
pre-Libya levels."We know they pretty much ran out of them at the
end of Libya. Given the budgetary constraints the Europeans are
operating with, and in an era where every euro spent on defence is very
heavily scrutinised, it is a hard sell to restock on this stuff,"
Ben-Ari said. "And it would not be enough to be at Libya levels. You
would need far more for Syria."A Syrian air campaign would also
require stealth aircraft and a great amount of signals intelligence,
satellite imagery and aerial reconnaissance, all of which are US
specialities. For all those reasons, Washington would not be able to
"lead from behind" as it did in Libya.The Obama administration
has so far been extremely wary of getting enmeshed in another Middle
East war, particularly with the knowledge that the long-running Iranian
nuclear crisis could trigger a conflict in the Gulf at any time. With
the resignation of CIA director David Petraeus last month, the
administration arguably lost its most powerful advocate of Syrian
intervention.John Kerry, the nominee for secretary of state, has
advocated greater support for the rebels, but stopped short of calling
for direct US or Nato involvement. With no new secretary of defence yet
nominated, it could take several months for the new team to recalibrate
its approach.The robust Syrian defences, combined with Damascus's
hand-in-glove relationship with Moscow, and the fragmented nature of
the opposition, help explain why a US-led intervention – predicted as
imminent for more than a year by advocates and opponents alike – has so
far failed to materialise, and why there is little appetite for such a
move in Washington and most other western capitals, barring a major,
verifiable use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime.

Added: Dec-24-2012 Occurred On: Dec-23-2012
By: Rockardgb
World News
Tags: Russia, Syria, Military, Air Defense
Location: Syria (load item map)
Views: 2470 | Comments: 12 | Votes: 0 | Favorites: 0 | Shared: 3 | Updates: 0 | Times used in channels: 2
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