Syria strike: Is loss of strategic surprise costing the US?

If and when the US carries out a missile strike, Syria's military will have had ample time to prepare, and Russia will be better positioned to provide Assad real-time intelligence, experts say.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel (l.) and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey arrive for a closed-door intelligence briefing for members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday.

If the US launches cruise missiles against Syria it won’t come as a surprise to Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Delay and debate in the US have given the Syrian government lots of warning time to hide weapons and equipment and otherwise attempt to harden itself against possible air strikes.

Does this time slippage matter? Would it end up degrading the effects of any eventual US attack that President Obama might order?

The nation’s top military officer says it won’t. In congressional appearances this week Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Martin Dempsey said US forces in the region can remain alert and on-station for the foreseeable future. It’s true that Syria has moved some potential targets out of harm’s way, said Gen. Dempsey. But that activity began days ago, when it first became apparent that the US took seriously evidence that President Assad had gassed his own people.

And “time works both ways,” said Dempsey. US intelligence assets focused on Syria have been able to learn a lot about what the regime has, and where that stuff is stored, as fear of US munitions has caused a flurry of hasty activity. Right now the Syrians don’t know how much targeting information the US has.

“I’m confident in the capabilities we can bring to bear to deter and degrade. And it won’t surprise you to know that we will have not only an initial target set but subsequent target sets should they become necessary,” Dempsey told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday.

That said it’s still unfortunate that a US military operation, if one does occur, has taken so long to develop, say some military experts outside government. For one thing, it has given the Russian Navy time to deploy ships to the Mediterranean, giving an ally of Assad the ability to shadow US destroyers.

The Russian reconnaissance vessel SSV-201 Priazovye left the Russian Black Sea Fleet port of Sevastopol Sept. 1, bound for waters off Syria, reports the Institute for the Study of War (ISW). It should have little trouble locating the US Arleigh Burke-class destroyers in the area, given the electronic emissions of powerful US naval radars.

Cruise missiles, at launch, aren’t exactly stealth weapons – they ride hundreds of feet straight up on rockets before wings unfold, their turbofan engines start, and they fly off toward targets. Russia’s naval assets might be able to provide Syria a crucial cushion of warning time against such an attack.

Syrian military buildings can’t move, of course. But missile launchers and the generals who command them can.

“By significantly delaying the potential strike against the Assad regime, not only has the US given Assad considerable time to prepare for the attack in Syria, it has given Russia time to position intelligence assets that can immediately alert the Assad regime of exactly when the [Tomahawk land attack] missiles are launched,” writes ISW.

The US loss of strategic surprise could also enable the Assad regime to use human shields in an attempt to protect its military assets.

Syrian opposition sources say Scud missiles and launchers have been repositioned next to schools, university dormitories, and government buildings, according to Reuters. Meanwhile, the Syrian government was packing military sites with conscripts and other troops of suspect loyalty, according to ex-soldiers.

These reports haven’t been confirmed by outside sources. But the Assad regime has a history of using human shields, according to the National Journal. Last year the UN annual report on Children and Armed Conflict charged that Syrian troops used children as young as 8 years old as shields during raids. This March, Human Rights Watch said Syrian government forces made civilians march in front of them during operations in northern Syria.

The use of human shields may be barbaric, but it’s “also the kind of tactic that, if used during a possible US strike, has the potential to completely deter and degrade the Obama administration’s plans for quick, relatively painless, and limited action,” writes the National Journal’s Matt Berman.

Finally, the slow-down in what appeared to be a US rush to conflict has allowed Assad to already claim victory, of a sort.

Assad referred to Mr. Obama’s decision to ask for a congressional vote on possible action in Syria as an “historic American retreat.” According to The New York Times, he’s told those around him that the West is bluffing in regards to a Syria attack, and that any strike would only be “cosmetic.”

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