Syria's Air Defenses Would Foil a Turkish Intervention

Article Summary
Syria's sophisticated air defenses are the first of several good reasons why Turkey should not contemplate unilateral military action against the Damascus regime, writes Eyup Can.

If anyone wants to advocate intervention in Syria he should first explain to us Henri Barkey’s concerns and that air defense system.

We have been debating Syria for months. Are you pro-war or pro-Assad? Shall we enter or not? Shall we set up a buffer zone with the United States or go to Damascus by ourselves in three hours?

Talking is free of charge. Everybody talks. But look what Barkey [a Turkey analyst at Lehigh University], was telling [Radikal journalist] Ezgi Basaran in their interview yesterday: “The Turkish army doesn’t have enough experience to set up a buffer zone.”

And then he lists the bitter truths.

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To those who might ask who Henri Barkey is, let me remind them: He speaks Turkish better than most Turks, has worked in the US State Department and is a highly respected academic close to the Democratic Party. What does he say?

“Turkey cannot enter Syria unilaterally even if it wants to.”

Why not?

“Turkey’s aim to create a kind of buffer zone coupled with a no-fly zone in Syria. This is why it is pressing on the US [to get involved] because it can’t do this by itself. So why aren’t Americans doing it? The Syrian air defense system is highly sophisticated. America has to put hundreds of planes in the air to suppress that system. Since that air defense system was designed for use against Israel, it is developed far more than you may think. Yes, we can create a buffer zone in Syria but they will definitely shoot down some of our planes. This is not a game.”

Mind you, Barkey is not anti-war or pro-Assad. In the interview he accused the Turkish main opposition of being pro-Assad. He partially absolved the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government, saying: “They didn’t have too many options.”

But his words are distinctly different from the politicians and those who are put on TV screens as experts.

“I have been in Turkey for a week. Thousands of experts appear on TV to debate Syria but nobody mentions the points I have raised with you, because they don’t know,” Barkey said. “In 1983, Hezbollah attacked a US Marine base [in Beirut] and killed [241] marines. The US decided to retaliate and the Syrian anti-aircraft system shot down two US planes. One of the pilots died and the other was captured by Syrians.

“What I am saying is that the US knows by its own experience how difficult it will be to set up a buffer zone between Turkey and Syria. To implement a buffer zone you will have to keep combat air patrols flying nonstop. As I was working with the US State Department I know how difficult a mission like that can be. Iraqi radars were locking on to US planes and we were firing missiles at those radars. We were firing at Iraqi air defense systems every day and missing them most of the time,” he said.

“The buffer zone is not easy. You will have lots of nasty incidents. If they put an anti-aircraft system next to a mosque, the plane can hit the mosque and kill the civilians in it. We saw this in Iraq. Can Turkey do all this? It can’t.”

Why not?

“Most importantly, Turkey lacks the experience. When was the last time Turkey fought another country? The Turkish army can be the second largest in NATO but it is not experienced,” Barkey said. 

“There is a humorous side to this: In 1998-99, Cyprus was thinking of buying the S-300 anti-aircraft systems that Syria is using today. At that time, the Turkish air force practiced, in Israel, suppressing S-300’s because they didn’t know how to deal with that weapon.”

All day yesterday, I wanted to double-check what Barkey had said in the interview.  We contacted the Foreign Ministry and the Chief of General Staff offices. They had all read the interview carefully. What they basically said was: “Yes, Barkey had some correct points but it is not really all that difficult [to overcome Syria’s missile shield].”

This is why if anyone insists on intervention in Syria or the establishment of a buffer zone, he should first explain to us Henri Barkley’s concerns and that air defense system.

The number of air defense missiles are striking. Yes, Turkey is far stronger than Syria in terms of its number of troops — including naval and ground forces — but Syria is far ahead in air defense missiles that it has set up to confront Israel.

Compared to the 178 missiles Turkey has, Syria has 4,707 air defense missiles. Barkey did not give the figures but drew attention to this reality.

Before debating why Turkey should or should not intervene in Syria for political and humanitarian reasons, shouldn’t someone get up and tell us why it would be so difficult to set up a buffer zone?

True, there is human tragedy next door. The last Baathist killer of the Middle East is bombing his own people. We cannot just watch.

But we should  not dive in head first to a Syria that is becoming Vietnam by egging each other on instead of discussing some bitter truths.

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Found in: syrian, syria, nato, akp
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