How a US strike on Syria might look: cyberwar could play key role

The Pentagon is planning for a military operation in Syria, which could include a cyberattack on its air defenses. But analysts warn that intervention could spark a costly civil war.

A Syrian man walks next to a wall with the Syrian revolutionary flag painted on it and Arabic writing which reads 'freedom,' in northern Syria, Sunday, June 3.
J. Scott Applewhite/AP/File
In this April 19 file photo, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, before the House Armed Services Committee hearing on recent developments with the crisis in Syria.

With the US stepping up its rhetoric against the Assad regime and the killing of civilians in Syria, the Pentagon is engaged in contingency planning for a military operation there that could include a cyberwarfare attack.

But even as military planners voice optimism that the US possesses the vast technical superiority and tactical ingenuity to overcome Syria’s robust air defenses and air force, defense analysts warn that Western military intervention could cause Syria to erupt in a civil war that would eclipse the Iraq war in devastation and mayhem.

It remains to be seen whether the depth of these political concerns nullifies any deterrent effect discussion of the US military planning could have on the Syrian regime.

On Friday, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta warned that the situation in Syria is “intolerable” and that President Bashar al-Assad must go, but added that any military operation the Pentagon is planning would not come without broad support from the international community.

So far the US and Western powers have been unable to overcome Russian and Chinese objections to any diplomatic initiatives that could pave the way for the use of force in Syria. But even if that broad support is forthcoming, the military operation would not be an easy one, or one on par with, say, Libya.

“From the military option perspective, Syria has a much more robust surface-to-air missile defense network than did the Libyans,” says retired US Air Force Lt. Gen. Dave Deptula, a former war planner and the principal air attack planner for Operation Desert Storm, who adds that the Pentagon could use a cyberwarfare attack to take out those air defenses.

There are some 130 active surface-to-air (SAM) missile sites throughout the country, which are far more daunting than those Libya possessed because they stay in a far higher state of readiness as a result of the perceived threat they face from Israel, Mr. Deptula notes.

US military drones would be of little use in what the Pentagon calls a “contested air environment” since they are easy to shoot down and have no radar-evading capabilities, for example.

This is precisely what the so-called fifth generation US military fighter jets like the F22 and the F35 are designed to do, says Deptula, who adds that there’s no doubt that the US military could go up against a robust air defense system and “shut it down.”

Indeed, most SAM systems “are designed to be able to only engage a single target a time,” he adds, “which then leads into a counter technique in terms of saturating their air defenses in order to render them ineffective” – a “swarming” of sorts by US military air assets.

Nor are “kinetics” – in military parlance – the only option. US forces could begin reaching out to rebel fighters, if they haven’t already.

The Pentagon is also likely looking at cyberattack options, Deptula notes.

“We’ve come up with ways that can make the target-tracking radar think it’s a GE washing machine – that effectively takes it out of service without destroying it,” he says. “Operation in the cyber realm are certainly part and parcel” of the planning effort.

But the question remains to what end – and to what purpose? Pentagon planners will no doubt be asking themselves the same thing, Deptula adds. “Assad is clearly a leader that needs to be disposed of – the question is what’s the best way to do that?”

Among defense analysts, there is a growing belief that in dismantling a state like Syria, the lessons learned of such an operation will not come from Libya, but rather from Iraq, warns Aram Nerguizian, a fellow with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Much like Iraq, Syria has deep-rooted sectarian, tribal, and socioeconomic fault lines. But civil war has the potential to look far more messy in Syria, and spill out into neighboring countries.

Unlike Iraq, Syria has little experience with education reform, institution-building, and structural change, Mr. Nerguizian adds, noting that it has long been a “banana republic” grappling with decades of coup and counter-coup.

In the wake of a military intervention by the United States or the larger international community, “the sectarian and tribal pressures will all come to a head,” Nerguizian says. “And what comes out of it will be anyone’s guess.”

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