With every indication that the US – along with a small number of its allies – may be readying a punitive strike against Syrian government forces, an obvious question is what could Syria do to respond?
How far could it defend itself against the sort of attack that is being planned? And what steps might it take to retaliate in some way?
1. Syria’s defences
All of the indications suggest that the sort of strike that is being planned by the US, Britain and perhaps France will involve weapons launched from long-range – Tomahawk land-attack cruise missiles fired from warships or submarines.
Fixed-wing aircraft may also be used, but if so they will probably employ stand-off weapons that again can be fired from well outside Syrian airspace. This will make it much harder for Syria to use its defensive systems to counter any attack.
Syria’s air defences used to be highly capable, based upon older Soviet-supplied systems like the S-200/SA-5 Gammon, together with some more recently acquired Russian weapons, like the SA-22 and SA-17. Syria also deploys a variety of sophisticated Chinese-supplied radar systems.
The integrity of the system may have been damaged due to the loss of territory and some missile and radar sites to the rebels.
But Syria’s air defences remain credible. That is one of the reasons why any attack would use stand-off weapons.
It should be remembered that Israeli jets have attacked Syrian targets over recent years with relative impunity. Sophisticated Western air forces are well versed in the sorts of weaponry at Syria’s disposal.
Yes these missiles could shoot down aircraft, but equally the pilots have a range of defensive tactics and technology at their disposal. Uncertainty surrounds the much more capable S-300 system – ordered by Syria from Moscow – but thought not yet to be delivered or operational.
As well as air defences, Syria might seek to counter US and Western naval forces by using its own arsenal of shore-based anti-shipping missiles. For example, Syria deploys the Russian-supplied Yakhont – a supersonic anti-shipping missile known in Nato circles as the SS-N-26. But here too the Tomahawk firing vessels may be out of range of Syria’s defensive weaponry.