Foreign military intervention is (for reasons I’ve discussed) unlikely, though not out of the question; watch for Turkish agitation to create a “safe haven” in northern Syria or rebel attacks on Syrian Air Force bases and other assets. (That Turkish plane that got shot down a few weeks ago? Very probably a probe of Syria’s air defenses. As long as those are still working, military intervention will be hard and expensive. So if the rebels suddenly start going after bases and air defense batteries, then that’ll be suggestive.)
This morning comes the news that Syrian rebels have attacked and looted an air defense base in Eastern Syria. In fact, it looks like this may be part of a sudden shift towards attacking air defense facilities; there was another, separate attack on an airbase yesterday, and one last week that went unnoticed until now.Now, there are other reasons for the rebels to be attacking airbases. The Air Force is widely and particularly hated — traditionally because it’s long been a stronghold of Alawite influence, more recently because of indiscriminate bombings of civilian neighborhoods. And air defense bases have surface-to-air missiles, which the rebels will be delighted to get their hands on. But multiple attacks on bases and air defense sites in a few days? Yeah, that looks a lot like someone has been whispering in the rebels’ ears.How this plays out... well, I doubt the rebels can severely damage Syria’s air defense capability. But they can definitely degrade it. A lesson going back for decades, to Algeria and Vietnam, is that it’s damnably hard to maintain air bases in the midst of a hostile countryside. (I’m writing this post in Belgrade, Serbia. Belgrade has a fascinating Air Museum out at the airport. It includes half a dozen German and Italian aircraft, captured during WWII when the Yugoslav Partisans launched surprise attacks on Axis airbases in occupied Yugoslavia. The Partisans didn’t capture that many aircraft, of course — most, they just blew up.) It’s not impossible, by any means — that’s another lesson from Vietnam — but the regime will have to allocate money (in short supply) and loyal soldiers (in dangerously short supply) to garrisoning its air bases. Over time, it will probably have to consolidate its air defenses in fewer sites and bases, making it strategically more vulnerable. So, definitely an ominous development.
Now, since this is the Middle East, it’s also possible that there’s a second game. The attacks on airbases may be a signal that someone — the Turks, the West — is getting serious about intervention. A signal to who, though? The regime is probably past caring. The Russians?