In the event of a punitive strike or a limited operation to reduce Syrian President Bashar al Assad’s chemical weapons delivery capability — for instance, by targeting key command and control facilities, main air bases and known artillery sites — the United States already has enough forces positioned to commence operations.
Four Arleigh Burke-class destroyers — and probably a nuclear-powered cruise missile submarine — are already within Tomahawk cruise missile range of Syrian targets. In addition, the United States can call upon strategic bombers based in the continental United States as well as B-1 bombers from Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar. In such an operation, the United States would be able to carry out standoff attacks beyond the range of Syrian air defenses, while B-2 bombers could stealthily penetrate the Syrian air defense network to drop bunker-busting bombs with minimal risk.
Considering that al Assad’s forces have a number of ways to deliver chemical weapons, ranging from air power to basic tube and rocket artillery, an operation that seeks to degrade the regime’s ability to launch chemical weapons would necessarily be far wider in scope and scale. This means tactical aviation would have to play a key role in such a campaign, which in turn would entail the deployment of significant enabler aircraft such as aerial refueling tankers and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets.
Given the threat from Syrian air defenses to manned tactical aircraft flying over Syria, considerably more ships equipped with cruise missiles would be needed for the inevitable suppression of an enemy air defense campaign, and aircraft carriers would be needed to bolster the tactical aviation assets available for the operation.
The United States has not yet begun to deploy the forces needed for this level of intervention, but significant combat power is not far off. Two U.S. supercarriers and their escorts in the U.S. 5th Fleet area of operations are only a few days away, and the U.S. Air Force can rapidly surge squadrons into the theater if necessary, especially if air bases in Turkey, Greece, Jordan and Cyprus are available.
A Comprehensive Look At The Options For Intervention
The United States and its allies have a few options if they proceed with an intervention in Syria, a prospect that seems increasingly likely. A limited punitive strike on critical targets meant to discourage future use of chemical weapons would be the simplest operation. Another option would be to target the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons delivery systems and storage facilities, but this option would require significantly more resources than the limited strike, and the risk of mission creep would be high.
Another problem with targeting the regime’s chemical weapons is that such weapons are notoriously difficult to destroy. Therefore, the West could elect to deploy ground forces to secure the chemical weapons and ensure their destruction. Such a mission would be tantamount to a full-scale invasion, and thus we believe it is very unlikely.
In general, the larger and more complex the operation, the more time it will take, the more of a leading role the United States will have to assume and the more obvious the force buildup will be. There appears to be 3 main scenarios.
1. Limited Punitive Strike
A limited punitive strike on regime targets is the least risky option and requires the fewest resources. This option would seek to demonstrate American and allied credibility by striking regime targets, including command and control facilities and other high-value and symbolic targets. The purpose of a punitive strike would be to dissuade the al Assad regime from the further use of chemical weapons in the civil war without crippling the Syrian regime itself.
Breakdown of Targets and Assest Required at Stratfor: Syria: A Comprehensive Look at the Options for Intervention
2. Cripple the Regime’s Chemical Weapons Delivery Capability
Should the United States and its allies decide to take the mission a step further, they could attempt not only to discourage the further use of chemical weapons but also to remove the regime’s ability to use the weapons. The command, control and communication facilities would still be targeted, but the operation would also need to strike at a much wider network of targets and their associated defenses.
3. Secure the Chemical Weapons in Syria
The most ambitious and risky operation would be to attempt to secure the regime’s chemical weapons to definitively prevent their further use. This operation would probably also signal the demise of the al Assad regime. In many ways, this option would be synonymous with an invasion of Syria, since any attempt to secure the Syrian chemical weapons arsenal would necessitate significant ground forces. It is for this reason that we believe the likelihood of this option to be very remote.