Just one week after an attack killed hundreds in a strategic Damascus suburb, United States Secretary of State John Kerry has indicated that the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons was “undeniable.” The announcement book ended a week of naval deployments meant to give the United States and its allies the capability to strike Syrian targets in response for the regime’s use of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). The move has sparked a strong reaction from the Russian Federation, which maintains an alliance with Syrian President Bashar al Assad. The United States, therefore, has indicated that it is studying the legal rationale used during the air war in Kosovo to bypass the expected Russian veto at the United Nations Security Council. As part of EDAM’s Syrian civil war discussion series, this paper will analyze the United States’ military deployments, identify potential targets, explain the likely course of action, and analyze the potential impact for Turkish and allied security.

Legal Grounds

Sinan Ülgen
Ülgen is a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe in Brussels, where his research focuses on Turkish foreign policy, nuclear policy, cyberpolicy, and transatlantic relations.
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Undoubtedly, the first choice for establishing international legitimacy for the intervention will be to get the approval of the United Nations Security Council. It is possible for the UNSC to adopt a resolution supporting a military intervention in Syria. Such a resolution can be taken on the grounds of the 39th and 42nd articles of the UN Charter.

Article 39

The Security Council shall determine the existence of any threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression and shall make recommendations, or decide what measures shall be taken in accordance with Articles 41 and 42, to maintain or restore international peace and security.

Article 42

Should the Security Council consider that measures provided for in Article 41 would be inadequate or have proved to be inadequate, it may take such action by air, sea, or land forces as may be necessary to maintain or restore international peace and security. Such action may include demonstrations, blockade, and other operations by air, sea, or land forces of Members of the United Nations.

Yet for the apparent stances of Russia and China on Syria, the UNSC is not expected to approve the intervention. Another strategy that can be followed within the UN system if the UNSC stalemate 2 cannot be resolved, is to resort to the UN General Assembly to get a resolution that calls for an intervention. This method, which was only used once in the past during the Korean crisis in the 1950s, will not provide as much legitimacy as an UNSC resolution in terms of international law, but might still be helpful in providing a political legitimacy for the operation. The international community may also prefer to politically isolate the countries that block the UNSC resolution, namely Russia and China, if these countries find few countries to back their position at the UNGA.

However if UNSC authorization cannot be obtained, the operation will have to be based on another legal ground. Yet, if the coalition fails to achieve a mandate from the UN, the military operation’s international legitimacy will suffer. There are, however, two methods for an intervention outside the scope of the UN. The first involves invoking the “responsibility to protect – R2P” principle, which took its place in international law in 2005 after the debates that surrounded the intervention led under NATO’s umbrella in Kosovo against the Serbian regime under the rule of Slobodan Milosevic in 1999. The R2P concept is still contentious in international politics. The UNSC mandated military intervention in Libya last year utilized this concept as well.

The operational paragraph in UNSC Resolution 1973 is as follows:

“Authorizes Member States that have notified the Secretary-General, acting nationally or through regional organizations or arrangements, and acting in cooperation with the Secretary-General, to take all necessary measures, notwithstanding paragraph 9 of resolution 1970 (2011), to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, including Benghazi…”

Yet the use of chemical weapons in Syria has brought up another basis for intervention that has never been resorted to by the international community in the past. The status of chemical weapons under international law is different than that of conventional weapons. After the terrible experiences in World War I, the international community banned the use of chemical weapons. This ban was later codified by the 1925 Geneva Convention. The Geneva Convention also bans the use of biological weapons. While the Geneva Convention banned the use of such weapons of mass destruction, it did not ban or limit the production and stockpiling of such weapons. The shortcomings of this Convention were addressed in the 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention and the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). Currently 189 countries are party to the CWC. Syria, along with Egypt and Israel, are among the 7 nations that are not a party to the Convention. While this means that Syria is not subject to any international limitations on chemical weapons production by not being a party to the CWC, Syria is still bound by the Geneva Convention that bans the use of chemical weapons. When looked at in this light, a potential military operation conducted in Syria might be based on the violation of a rule that the international community first established in 1925. The Turkish position as stated 3 recently by the Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu is that Ankara is willing to take part in a coalition even if a UNSC mandate cannot be obtained.

Defining the Aim and the Scope: Keeping it Limited, Punitive, Stand-off

As Anglo-American strategists Collin Gray states, “war is not a sporting event; it is not waged for the purpose of winning. Victory, or a tolerable stalemate, is sought for political reasons”[1]. In the light of this clear definition about a campaign’s goals, we must first understand the main parameters of a possible military effort against the Baathist dictatorship of Syria.

The Aim

In a sense, the aim is the most important factor that will define the scope and character of the intervention. There are various goals which can be assigned as the aim and all of them point to a different way of conducting the operation. For example if the declared aim is to punish the Assad regime, it can be expected that the operation will target military capabilities that the regime values (military aircraft, key air bases, command and control centers, intelligence infrastructure, WMD storage facilities and strategic weapons etc.). Preventing the Assad regime from resorting to chemical and/or biological weapons in the future may be another rationale such an operation. Another aim, which has been demanded by the Turkish side for a long time, is to establish a no-fly zone in Syria so as to protect the civilian population but also to redress the balance of forces on the ground to favor the opposition. An even more ambitious aim is the regime change agenda. Such an operation would bring about a more consequential impact and help to topple the Assad regime. Another goal can be to weaken the regime in advance of the diplomatic negotiations slated to start in Geneva. In sum, the countries willing to take part in the operation will have to reach a consensus on the aim of the operation and how to define success.

Assessing the Current Military Buildup

First, President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron have ruled out the deployment of ground troops to support any military contingency in Syria. However, it is likely that a slew of Western special forces are already operating in country, as part of a larger effort to help identify potential targets and to train some well vetted rebel groups fighting under the banner of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Secondly, casualty-avoidance is expected to be at the very center of the military planning. Therefore, it is unlikely that coalition tactical aircraft will fly into range of Syrian air defense systems, in order to decrease pilot risk, and to prevent the downing of any allied aircraft. For the United States and its allies, the loss of any aircraft would be politically untenable, thus military 4 planners are likely to exercise extreme caution when selecting their targets. Tactical aircraft will likely be used to strike Syrian defenses using stand-off weapons from outside the operational range of Syria’s integrated air defenses. More commitment of forces could include bombers and stealth B-2s. Thirdly, the operational aim will likely be to degrade Assad’s strategic weapons systems and combatready aircraft, rather than destroy them completely. The strike, therefore, is likely going to be designed to send a strong signal to the regime through a series of stand-off strikes, in order to reinforce the “redline”, and to reinforce a deterrent against the future use of WMD.

In doing so, it seems, the main weapon of choice would be submarine and surface combat vessellaunched variants of conventional, submunition dispensing, and tactical versions of the Tomahawk cruise missile, In addition, aircraft will likely be used to deliver other stand-off weapons like the AGM-158 and AGM-154.

The recent use of Tomahawk land-attack cruise missiles (TLAM) and conventional air-launched cruise missiles (CALCMs) suggest that these systems will likely be used at the outset of a military campaign to strike fixed, well-defended and high-risk targets [2]. Yet, while TLAM and CALCM are useful for the penetration of heavily defended airspace, they are more expensive than laser-guided bombs (LGB) and the joint-direct attack munitions (JDAM). Nevertheless, the TLAM and the CALCM have been used extensively in previous conflicts because they decrease pilot risk, are accurate, and can be launched from areas outside of enemy defenses. For example, in 1998, the United States fired some 90 CALCMs and 325 TLAMs during operation Desert Fox in Iraq. In 1999, the United States and its allies used around 60 CALCMs and 150 TLAMs to strike targets in Kosovo.[3].

The recent naval buildup also confirms EDAM’s military analyses concerning the likely use of standoff strikes with cruise missiles. TLAM, for example, can be launched from surface vessels (US Navy Arleigh Burke-class destroyers and Ticonderoga-class cruisers) and submarines (US Navy Los Angeles-class, Ohio-class; and the Royal Navy Trafalgar-class and Astute-class submarines). As of now, the combat vessels deployed in the Mediterranean – USS Gravely, USS Barry, USS Ramage, and recently the USS Mahan– are all Arleigh Burke-class missile destroyers equipped with vertical launch systems capable of firing the TLAM.

A report for the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) calculated that with a 50% offensive missile load for the Aerleigh Burke-class destroyers each vessel would be able to carry some 45 TLAMs. [4] Furthermore, the Royal Navy’s Trafalgar-class submarines are equipped with five 533 mm torpedo tubes that can carry up to 30 Tomahawk missiles. Open source information suggests that the UK deploys at least one of these submarines in the Mediterranean at any given time. In addition, the United Kingdom’s Astute-class submarine is believed to carry more cruise missiles than the Trafalgar class boats.[5] Like the British, the US Navy is likely to have deployed at least one guided missile submarine (SSGN) in the Mediterranean. Thus we believe that the initial deployment of American and British ships can carry between 200 and 400 TLAMs, depending on the number of submarines deployed in the area. This level more or less resembles the number of cruise missiles used during Operation Desert Fox in 1998. However, if either the U.S. or the UK has deployed more missilecapable submarines (for instance, the Ohio-class can carry up to 154 Tomahawks, likewise the Royal Navy’s Astute-class has a greater load than the Trafalgar-class), than the number of strikes could increase. Moreover, if the U.S. Navy has fully equipped their destroyers with cruise missiles, than the intensity of the strikes could also be augmented. [6]

Deployment Posture and Possible Target Acquisition

One of the main rationales behind a military deployment is to provide several options to political decision-makers. If employed alone, the initial naval buildup of stand-off capabilities are capable of sending a strong message to Assad and his supporters about the use of CWs. However, the deployment, at least for now, would not be enough to enforce a no-fly zone, to open a humanitarian corridor, or to overthrow the Baathist dictatorship. Moreover, all of Syria’s ballistic missiles, which constitute the regime’s most formidable WMD delivery means, can be used via mobile launchers. From a military standpoint, road-mobile missile systems are highly time-sensitive targets that would require a more complicated effort than stand-off strikes using cruise missiles.

Therefore, EDAM’s military assessment shows that the forthcoming operation would likely to target: a) Symbols of the regime’s potency (i.e. HQs and military complexes of praetorian units such as the 4th Armored Division, Republican Guard) b) Some of the regime’s important operational air bases’ runways, fuel storages, and hardened aircraft shelters c) key facilities related to the WMD program (Al Safira Base, Scientific Studies and Research Center, etc.), d) known missile forces and strategic weapon systems, e) key command & control sites and critical decision-making facilities.

The operation will likely be designed to put pressure on units and persons that are responsible for the alleged use of chemical weapons on 21 August. Thus, the recent reports suggesting that Bashar’s brother, Maher Assad, was responsible for the CW attack may indicate that his unit (on the paper, a brigade under the 4th Armored Division) will also be targeted [7]. In addition, it is likely that the initial offensive will also target some of the regime’s static air defense systems, as part of a preliminary effort to enforce a future no-fly zone, should the coalition opt to pursue that course of action. Likewise, the Syrian Navy’s fast patrol crafts and shore-based anti-ship missile systems could be targeted in order to maintain operational security. In that sense, the Israeli Navy’s Sa’ar 5-class corvette INS Hanit’s hit by a C-802 missile fired by Hezbollah in 2006 sets a caveat for the safety of surface combat vessels in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Nevertheless, the initial deployment is expected to be supported by other assets. Open-source information suggests that two carrier strike groups (CSG,) the USS Nimitz CSG and the USS Harry Truman CSG, are currently deployed in the US 5th Fleet’s area of responsibility.[8] CSGs include guided-missile vessels and embarked air-wings that can launch offensive capabilities in a few days time. Moreover, at the time of writing, the Guardian reported that the Royal Air Force (RAF) is intensifying activity at the British Akrotiri Base on the island of Cyprus.[9]

The RAF’s Tornado GR4 all-weather attack aircraft is capable of delivering the Storm Shadow standoff cruise missile. The missile was recently used during the enforcement of a no-fly-zone over Libya. The Storm Shadow has an operational range of more than 250 km and could be used to attack several targets from outside the range of Syrian air defenses.[10] According to the RAF, the missile “is designed to attack important hardened targets and infrastructure, such as buried and protected command centers”[11].

The Storm Shadow therefore could be a weapon of choice when targeting the regime’s command & control systems. In addition, France, which has advocated the use Syria in the past, can also employ its version of the Storm Shadow – the SCALP EG – via Rafale multi-role fighter aircraft currently deployed in United Arab Emirates. In addition, the French Navy’s aircraft carrier, Charles de Gaulle, is expected to contribute to the campaign with its air wing and escort vessels. In addition, Turkey, Jordan, and some of the GCC states’ aircraft could be used to support the mission.

The ISW report also suggests that the F-15E multi-role fighters could be used for delivering AGM-158 Joint Air to Surface Standoff Missile (JASMM)[12]. EDAM’s military assessment also confirms this view. The F-15E, for example, has a longer combat radius than many other tactical aviation assets, can operate from several bases in the region - including Incirlik in Turkey - and can carry weapons like the JASMM, which can be launched from outside the range of Syria’s air defenses.

As a final note, Tomahawk missiles are capable of carrying special submunitions with rolls of carbonfiber wire. As employed during the Operation Desert Storm, these submunitions can target transformer yards for shutting down electric-power generation by avoiding long-term damage to the infrastructure [13]. Shutting down electric-power generation would offer advantages to special forces elements on the ground, especially in contested strategic areas such as suburbs of Damascus, and/or key lines of communications (LOC) between the capital, the coastal areas, and Aleppo. Therefore, it is possible to see meaningful opposition progress during and right after a limited campaign.

No Land Troops

At this stage a land based operation is not contemplated. There appear to be no preparations to send ground troops to Syria in any countries and most importantly in the US. Yet the risk that the conflict can shift from the previous scenario into this one should be considered. However, if Syrian opts to strike Turkish targets with ballistic missiles, Ankara and NATO may quickly find themselves in a conflict through the invocation of NATO’s collective defense article, Article V.

Turkey’s Possible Role

Briefly, there are four levels of involvement for Turkey in a possible limited strike option. The first one is opening its bases and airspace, especially Incirlik, to operating aircrafts. This would not risk Turkish military assets, but might trigger a biological or chemical-tipped attack on its territory. The extent of Turkey’s preparedness to prevent a potential WMD strike from Syria was analyzed in depth in a separate EDAM report. [14] Turkey would likely rely on the NATO deployed Patriot missile defense system and possibly the NATO ballistic missile defense infrastructure with the Malatya Kürecik early warning radar and the sea based Aegis interceptors to counter any suspected strike. But even this setup cannot guarantee a total protection against Syrian Scuds. In short, Turkey will have to augment its missile defense systems and capabilities quickly. However, its options for doing so are limited. Thus Ankara has no other options but to demand NATO’s assistance at this point. Moreover, taking out Syria’s retaliatory capability through the operation should be Turkey’s top priority. A similar analysis can be made with regards to Jordan, another neighbor of Syria. Ankara has also quietly been deploying more specially trained first responders to help deal with any strike.

Secondly, the Turkish Navy’s vessels can help with the operational security and a possible naval blockade in conjunction with other participating nations. At this point, if the operational scope includes targeting Syria’s fast patrol crafts, the Turkish Navy’s capabilities in anti-ship warfare would be necessary for the mission. Thirdly, if the limited strike option extends to a no-fly zone operation, the F-16C aircraft from Turkey’s 151st Squadron could use AGM-88 missiles to target Syrian air defenses.[15] In addition, Turkey could also opt to provide aerial refueling for coalition aircraft.

Lastly, Ankara’s cooperation would be vital for efforts to control and then eliminate Syrian chemical weapons should Assad be forced from power. The destruction of chemical weapons requires accounting for stockpiles and then the construction of specially designed facilities to incinerate the chemical precursor agent. This type of operation would take considerable amounts of time to set up and would necessitate a secure environment for the construction and operation of these special facilities. Thus, Turkey, as part of its larger passive resistance plans to contend with a chemical attack, could work closely with the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) on contingency plans to operate from areas on or near Turkey’s border with Syria.


The current preparations suggest that the United States and its allies are preparing to conduct limited strikes on key Syrian infrastructure using cruise missiles. A cruise missile attack is less resource intensive than a strike using aircraft delivered precision guided munitions. Moreover, the use of standoff weapons dramatically decreases the risk to Western forces. However, cruise missiles are not sufficient to establish and enforce a no-fly-zone. Thus, the current deployments do not suggest that the United States and its allies are preparing to establish and enforce a no-fly-zone over Syria. The strikes are therefore likely to be limited in duration, focus on C&C centers, and other regime affiliated targets. The scope of the mission is likely being narrow and focused on tightly circumscribed targets. The Obama Administration is therefore likely to frame the military response as a means to punish Assad for his use of CW, rather than as a larger military mission designed to tilt-the-balance in favor of the rebels or to force Assad from power.

Yet, while the use of cruise missiles offers the Western alliance with critical capabilities to strike Syrian targets, the limited use of force will not be able to destroy all of Syria’s CW stockpiles. The use of cruise missiles, for example, will not likely hamper the regime’s ability to continue to fire ballistic missiles and artillery-rockets at rebel positions. Moreover, a limited cruise missile strike will not be sufficient to destroy all of Assad’s chemical munitions and precursor agents. Thus, at the end of operations, there will likely continue to be calls for a more robust American led intervention into the Syrian conflict.

However, history suggests that the Obama Administration will resist these calls, in favor of a renewed push to use the strikes as part of larger strategy to coerce Assad to reach a negotiated settlement with the rebel’s representatives. However, if this process fails, the Obama administration is likely to face more pressure to dramatically ramp up military operations. In turn, the use of military force could become a more realistic option to dramatically alter the course of the three year old conflict. Yet, as of now, all signs indicate that the strike will resemble Operation Desert Fox in 1998, rather than the NATO air campaign over Kosovo in the early 1990s.

From a Turkish perspective, the most important strategic decision relates to the involvement of Turkish or Turkey based assets and capabilities in a potential operation. The more Turkey is operationally involved the higher the risk of a retaliatory strike from Syria. Ankara will therefore need to ensure that the first wave of Allied attacks includes strategic targets in Syria with a view to greatly diminish the Syrian regime’s ability to strike back. But for the longer term, Ankara’s security will be affected by the conditions prevailing in the aftermath of an international intervention. If the military engagement is able to substantially weaken the regime both diplomatically and militarily, Turkey will have fulfilled a goal that proved to be elusive until now. But equally likely is the possibility that a limited strike would further fuel the willingness of the Assad regime to cement regional instability backed by a pro-Assad regional alliance intent on challenging the West and its allies.

1 Colin, Gray. War, Peace and International Relations, Routledge, New York, 2007, p.8.

2 Barry, D. Watts. Six Decades of Guided Munitions and Battle Networks: Progress and Prospects, CSBA, Washington D.C., 2007. p. 239.

3 Donald, O’Rourke. Cruise Missile Inventories and NATO Attacks on Yugoslavia: Background Information, Congressional Research Service, Updated in 20 April 1999.

4 Christopher, Harmer. Required Sorties and Weapons to Degrade Syrian Air Force Excluding Integrated Air Defense Systems, ISW, Washington D.C., 2013.

5 The Royal Navy, http://www.armedforces.co.uk/navy/listings/l0011.html, Accessed on 27 August 2013.

6 The US Navy Fact Sheet, http://www.navy.mil/navydata/fact_display.asp?cid=4100&tid=300&ct=4, Accessed on 27 August 2013.

7 Al Arabiya, Assad’s Brother Accused of Orchestrating Syria Chemical Attack, http://english.alarabiya.net/en/News/middle-east/2013/08/25/Assad-s-brother-accused-of-orchestrating-Syria-chemicalattack-.html, Accessed on 27 August 2013.

8 Stratfor, U.S. Naval Update Map: 22 August 2013.

9 Guardian, “Syria Crisis: Warplanes Spotted in Cyprus as Tensions Rise in Damascus”, 26 August 2013.

10 National Air and Space Intelligence Center, Ballistic & Cruise Missile Threat, 2013. p. 29.

11 RAF Long Range Air to Surface Weapons, http://www.raf.mod.uk/equipment/stormshadow.cfm, Accessed on 27 August 2013.

12 Christopher, Harmer. Required Sorties and Weapons to Degrade Syrian Air Force Excluding Integrated Air Defense Systems. 2013.

13 Barry, D. Watts. Six Decades of Guided Munitions and Battle Networks: Progress and Prospects, 2007, pp. 239-240.

14 http://edam.org.tr/eng/document/Syria_No_Fly_Zone.pdf

15 IHS Jane’s, World Air Forces: Turkey, 02 July 2012.

This piece was originally written for the Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies (EDAM)..