from Pressure Points and Middle East Program

What Was That About Syria’s "Lethal" Air Defenses?

January 31, 2013

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Israel’s air strike on a Syrian weapons convoy is not the first such successful attack they have done. In September 2007, Israel attacked the nuclear reactor Syria was building (with North Korean help) and eliminated it. In both these cases, Syria’s air defenses proved worthless and Israel lost no planes.

These facts are worth noting because a major and repeated excuse for American passivity in Syria has been the claimed effectiveness of those air defenses. Last March, for example, New York Times editor Bill Keller voiced the conventional view of those supporting Obama policy by arguing that the President was right about Libya but is also right about Syria:

Syria is much harder. Libya had weak air defenses deployed along the coastline, easily accessible to Western bombers. Syria’s defenses are more lethal, more plentiful and spread across inland population centers.

More recently the Times expressed its own editorial view about intervening in any way in Syria:

the hazards are substantial. Syria is more complicated than Libya, where NATO aided a rebel victory by establishing a no-fly zone. It has more advanced Russian air defense systems near population centers that would have to be taken out first, which could cause more civilian casualties.

We are left wondering why Israel seems to be able to dodge those "advanced," "lethal," "plentiful" air defenses at will. Here’s a theory. The U.S. Air Force is plenty capable of doing what the Israeli Air Force has done. Syria’s air defenses are a problem and a threat, but they are above all an excuse for inaction. They appear to be far more effective at justifying our policy of inaction than they are at bringing down attacking airplanes.

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