Behind Romney’s tough talk on Syria

Walter Pincus
Reporter October 10, 2012

Does Mitt Romney understand the implications of his campaign pledge to “ensure” that Syrian opposition members “who share our values” will “obtain the arms they need” to defeat President Bashir al-Assad’s “tanks, helicopters and fighter jets”?

It’s quite easy for a speech­writer in Boston or Washington to put such promises on paper, and even easier for the candidate to make them in front of American flags to an audience of Virginia Military Institute cadets as he did on Monday.

Walter Pincus reports on intelligence, defense and foreign policy for The Washingon Post. He first came to the paper in 1966 and has covered numerous subjects, including nuclear weapons and arms control, politics and congressional investigations. He was among Post reporters awarded the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for national reporting. View Archive

Does he plan to add to the task of CIA and military intelligence officers who already are trying to identify the right Syrians to receive intelligence and communications equipment along with humanitarian assistance? Sorting out which among almost 100 groups deserve even this non-military help is one of the reasons the Obama administration is holding back from doing even more.

What other test does Romney have in mind to make sure various militia leaders with forces of varied sectarian, religious, criminal and even jihadist backgrounds “share our values”? Does he plan to link U.S. military and other material assistance to militia leaders to pledges to respect responsibilities that he listed, such as the rights of “all their citizens including women and minorities . . . space for civil society, a free media, political parties and an independent judiciary”?

Let’s examine the harder tasks for the CIA and Pentagon that would emerge if they were tasked with carrying out the rest of Romney’s pledge.

Start with his promise to “defeat Assad’s . . . fighter jets.” Setting up a no-fly zone, which Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and others have been recommending for months, is the only practical way to accomplish Romney’s proposal.

It requires attacks on a variety of targets, including Syrian air bases and aircraft, ammunition and fuel storage facilities, radar and command-and-control centers and surface-to-air missile batteries. The initial March 2011 attack on Libya to establish a no-fly zone required 112 Tomahawk missiles fired at 20 targets, followed by continuous air missions — and Moammar Gaddafi’s air defenses were far less capable than Assad’s.

The Pentagon has already drawn up contingency plans for such a step. On March 7, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey told the Senate Armed Services Committee that establishing a no-fly zone would have to be led by U.S. forces and take “an extended period of time and a great number of aircraft.”

Dempsey noted: “They [Syria] have approximately five times more sophisticated air defense systems than existed in Libya. . . . All of their air defenses are arrayed on their western border, which is their population center.”

Did Romney or his speechwriters read that testimony? Did they understand, as Dempsey and Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta explained to the senators seven months ago, that suppressing Syria’s air defenses would involve heavy civilian casualties, since Assad’s forces were strategically deployed in and around cities?

Perhaps Romney did some reading since Monday. On Wednesday, at a campaign event in Mount Vernon, Ohio, he repeated that he would identify “reasonable and responsible” Syrian dissidents and “provide funding and weapons to them.” But he said that “the active role” he planned “doesn’t mean sending in troops or dropping bombs.”

What happened to making sure the dissidents “share our values”? And how does Romney plan to defeat Assad’s fighter jets without dropping bombs?

The two other elements of his Monday pledge involve arming the Syrian opposition to deal with Assad’s helicopters and tanks. They are less dramatic, but worth reviewing.

The most probable weapon to deal with Syria’s armed helicopters are shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles. Assad’s forces reportedly have large stocks of an old Russian version called the SA-7, and there are reports the rebel forces have already been using them, probably after taking them during raids on Assad’s ammunition dumps.

Gaddafi’s military had stocks of these weapons, and U.S. and NATO intelligence have been trying to track down about 10,000 of the Libyan weapons that vanished when its military collapsed. As one former senior intelligence official said recently, this is one type of weapon that the U.S. will not distribute to any group in the Middle East, given its threat to commercial aircraft anywhere in the world.

As for tanks, Romney may be a bit behind the times. For almost a year, Syrian rebels have been using improvised explosive devices, the IEDs that have been the main cause of U.S. casualties in Afghanistan. In Syria, they have been used against Assad’s battle tanks, to attack convoys, and even to blow up buildings. U.S. intelligence sees them as one sign that jihadists have entered the fight on the rebel side.

Al-Jazeera has reported that Syrian rebels have set up a buffer zone along the Turkish border. And reports have circulated since July about a clandestine facility near the southern Turkish city of Adana that is being used as a “nerve center” for Turkey and other nations aiding the rebels. Sixty miles from the Syrian border, the secret facility is near Incirlik Air Base, which is a communications and transportation hub as well as a site for NATO and U.S. military exercises. Some 1,500 U.S. personnel are there.

Romney said the U.S. should be working “vigorously with our international partners to support” the Syrian opposition “rather than sitting on the sidelines.” Many of those Americans at Incirlik already may be doing much more than sitting on the sidelines when it comes to Syria.

For previous Fine Print columns, go to washingtonpost.com/fedpage.

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