Details of the plane incident along the Syrian coast are still emerging, but officials said Syria beefed up its air defenses with purchases from Russia after Israeli fighter jets destroyed a nuclear reactor under construction in the Syrian desert nearly five years ago. At least on paper, U.S. military officials said, the Syrian air defenses appear to be far more robust than those encountered by NATO in Libya and stronger than even Iran.
“I can name you worse [systems], but they are in places like China,” said an Air Force official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.
Concerns about the capability of the Syrian military are only one reason that the international community has refused to intervene in President Bashar al-Assad’s bloody crackdown on opposition groups.
But defense officials and military analysts say defeating Syria’s air defenses would require a sustained U.S. military effort, which would probably lead to civilian casualties.
Those urging caution warn that any military action risks plunging Western forces into the middle of what is essentially a sectarian civil war that could spread throughout the region.
At a time when the U.S. military is still fighting in Afghanistan and recovering from the long, bloody occupation of Iraq, there is also resistance inside the Pentagon to using force in instances in which U.S. national interests are not directly threatened.
“We can deal with the Syrian integrated air defenses,” said retired Lt. Gen. David Deptula, who oversaw Air Force intelligence efforts in the Pentagon. “It is much, much more challenging than Libya. They have some of the most recent surface-to-air missiles out there. But before we address the how, we need to address the why.”
In the wake of the 2007 raid by Israel on the al-Kibar nuclear reactor, Syria spent billions of dollars to upgrade its 1960s- and 1970s-era missile defenses. Among those purchases was the SA-22 Pantsir armored rocket system, which some defense officials speculated may have been used against the Turkish jet.
“The [Israeli] strike prompted the Syrians to purchase some very capable Russian systems,” said Douglas Barrie, a senior fellow specializing in aerospace at the Institute for International Strategic Studies in London.
Many defense analysts said the Syrian system is similar to Iran’s air defenses in terms of technology, but they suggested that the Syrian version is more effective because it is concentrated in a smaller area.