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Could Syria strike back if United States, allies, attack?

By Laura Smith-Spark, CNN
September 3, 2013 -- Updated 0009 GMT (0809 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Syria's president warns that Syria will "defend itself against any aggression"
  • Syria has hundreds of Scud and other surface-to-air missiles in its arsenal, analysts say
  • It also has sophisticated Yakhont anti-ship missiles that could target vessels near the coast
  • The strength of Syria's air defense systems may have been overstated, analyst says

(CNN) -- As the United States and its allies debate military intervention in Syria, the nation's president, Bashar al-Assad, has warned that Syria will "defend itself against any aggression."

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Wael Nader al-Halqi struck a similar note Saturday, saying the Syrian Army "is on maximum readiness and fingers are on the trigger to confront all challenges."

Their words raise the question: what could Syria do to retaliate in the event of strikes by international forces, and who might be in range?

Edward Hunt, a senior analyst at IHS Jane's, predicts that U.S. or other forces would mount any initial attacks using weapons that can be fired from a considerable distance, such as Tomahawk cruise missiles, "to avoid anyone having to get within the range of Syrian systems."

In this photo provided by the anti-government activist group Aleppo Media Center, Syrian men help survivors out of a building in Aleppo after it was bombed, allegedly by a Syrian regime warplane on Saturday, February 8. The United Nations estimates more than 100,000 people have been killed since the Syrian conflict began in March 2011. Click through to see the most compelling images taken during the conflict, which is now a civil war: In this photo provided by the anti-government activist group Aleppo Media Center, Syrian men help survivors out of a building in Aleppo after it was bombed, allegedly by a Syrian regime warplane on Saturday, February 8. The United Nations estimates more than 100,000 people have been killed since the Syrian conflict began in March 2011. Click through to see the most compelling images taken during the conflict, which is now a civil war:
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Those attack weapons would likely be launched from vessels in the Mediterranean Sea -- where five U.S. destroyers equipped with Tomahawk cruise missiles are positioned.

The Tomahawk has a range of about 1,000 miles and can be targeted with a high degree of precision, making it a very capable "stand-off" weapon, according to IHS Jane's.

So would Syria be able to reach the vessels firing such missiles?

Military has concerns about Syria mission

The P-800 Oniks/Yakhont anti-ship missiles, of which Syria has at least 20, would probably be the most useful conventional weapon, said Hunt.

But the missile has a range of only 62 to 186 miles (100 to 300 kilometers), depending upon flight profile. "It is a fairly sophisticated weapon if anyone sails close to the coast," said Hunt.

Tamir Eshel, editor-in-chief of Defense Update, an online defense magazine published in Israel, wrote in 2010 that the arrival of Syria's Yakhont missile system was "a serious threat" in the Mediterranean, since it "has the capability to strike its target at supersonic speed, flying at very low level, leaving the defender much shorter time to react."

Many U.S. and European naval vessels have defense systems that can handle that, he said, but some smaller vessels may be vulnerable.

Syria also has naval fast-attack craft and anti-submarine warfare helicopters, as well as its remaining air force combat aircraft, Hunt said. These, however, would be more vulnerable if they tried to attack a U.S. or other naval vessel, he said.

Scud missiles

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Syria possesses a large number of Scuds, thought to be 500 plus, and similar surface-to-surface weapons, but these are not designed to be used against moving targets such as U.S. warships, Hunt said.

The Scuds, with a range of 186 to 435 miles (300 to 700 kilometers), could be fired instead at land-based targets in Turkey or Jordan, or could be turned toward Israel, which has recently moved part of its Iron Dome anti-missile network north toward the Syrian border, he said.

Analysts estimate that Syria may also have several dozen SS-21 and up to 100 FROG-7 short-range ballistic missiles, according to IHS Jane's.

It does not, however, have any intercontinental ballistic missiles, limiting the threat of Syrian missile strikes beyond the Middle East region.

Russia appears not to have delivered the S-300 surface-to-air missile system it has promised to Syria, Hunt noted.

The United States put pressure on Russia this summer not to fulfill the order because of concerns it would give the Syrian government a much greater ability to target American, Israeli, NATO or other aircraft that might try to strike targets on the ground in future.

15 key questions answered

Overstated air strength?

Some experts have warned that venturing into Syria's air space could be very risky for foreign air forces.

According to information from IHS Jane's and the Institute for the Study of War, Syria has scores of attack helicopters at its disposal. It also has MiG 21/25 air-to-air combat aircraft, as well as MiG 23/29 attack aircraft and SU-22/24 attack aircraft in its hangars.

But Shiraz Maher, a senior fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at Kings College London, believes that any threat of defensive action by al-Assad is "saber-rattling" -- and that the danger posed by Syria's air forces is overstated.

"We've heard a lot about the supposed sophistication of the Syrian air force systems, (but) it's not yet proven itself," he said.

He points out that Israel has attacked targets inside Syria on three occasions since its civil war began, bombing arms depots and also Syrian arms movements when it believed that ballistic missiles were being moved to Hezbollah, "and yet the Syrians were either unable or unwilling to respond."

This is despite the fact that the last raid a few months ago on a military installation near Damascus caused a huge fire and an explosion big enough to register on the Richter scale, he said. Israel has traditionally been regarded as a sworn enemy of Syria, making the lack of response even more marked.

Defectors from the Syrian military, particularly the air force, also say that the country's air defense systems aren't as good as they're made out to be, Maher said, although their assessments have to be taken with a pinch of salt since they aren't impartial.

At the same time, he said, Syria's government realizes that while the United States has been pushed toward action by its suspected chemical weapons attack, any reprisal against American forces would inevitably escalate the conflict.

This would be inconvenient because it comes at a time when the Syrian military has been making key gains against the rebel forces, for example in the strategically important Homs region, he said, and is also committed to operations elsewhere, for example protecting Latakia, an Alawite stronghold in the north.

President Barack Obama has said there will be no U.S. "boots on the ground" in Syria. He has also ruled out any open-ended commitment and shown no enthusiasm for setting up a no-fly zone.

Unconventional warfare

If the forces involved in any foreign intervention are out of reach, another potential threat is that Syria could make use of what analysts believe is a large stockpile of chemical weapons, or launch terror attacks through its proxies.

Syria is believed to have the capability to deliver chemical weapons agents by a variety of methods, including ballistic missiles, according to IHS Jane's.

The Syrian military's apparent chemical weapons attack on a rebel stronghold outside Damascus on August 21 has "demonstrated a propensity to use it against its own," said Maher.

But he believes al-Assad's calculation will be "that if he doesn't use these weapons of mass destruction he will be basically allowed to get on with it," and so continue the conventional warfare that has already seen more than 100,000 people killed nationwide without concerted international action.

As for proxy attacks, Syria's civil war is already spilling over the borders of its neighbors in the form of bombings and refugees and is widely seen as a proxy war among different regional powers.

Juan Cole, a professor of Middle East history at the University of Michigan, said al-Assad's government might try to strike back by targeting American military, diplomatic or commercial interests in the Middle East, perhaps employing its allies in the Lebanese militia Hezbollah -- which has a long and bloody track record targeting Americans during Lebanon's long civil war.

"If Washington bombs things in Syria, I wouldn't want to be an American in Beirut within reaching distance of Hezbollah," he said. "You could see a return to 1980s types of things happening, when our embassy was blown up in Beirut and our CIA station chief was kidnapped and killed in the woods."

Ex-Navy planner Chris Harmer warns of the danger that Syrian chemical weapons could be passed to Hezbollah in the wake of any strike. "The worst possible outcome for the United States and the West in general is for these chemical weapons to transfer from Assad to Hezbollah," he said.

Hezbollah could also decide to strike back on its own behalf if its key interests are hit in Syria, said Harmer.

"If Hezbollah believes that this is really affecting the Assad regime's ability to stay in power, you could see Hezbollah do any one of a number of things," he said. "They could fire some rockets at Israel -- they may do that anyway. They could engage in asymmetrical warfare terrorist attacks abroad, and theoretically if there are severe attacks and Hezbollah is really threatened, theoretically they could decide to target Western interests, most likely in the region."

However, Maher argues that since Hezbollah has already contributed thousands of fighters on the ground in Syria, its capacity to act elsewhere could be limited.

Cyberattacks

Some worry that a U.S.-led strike on Syria would increase the likelihood of cyberattacks.

The Syrian Electronic Army, a group of hackers which backs the al-Assad regime, took The New York Times offline for a period this week in what experts said was a significant escalation of its operations. It had previously targeted other U.S. and European media organizations, including CNN.com.

Helmi Noman, a researcher at the Munk School of Global Affairs' Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto, predicts these hackers will look for more chances to exploit weaknesses in America's cybergrids.

But U.S. agencies will be looking to counter the Syrian Electronic Army's efforts, which so far have caused embarrassment rather than major damage.

"It's clearly a nuisance, but its tactics aren't all that sophisticated," a U.S. official told CNN. "And while the regime probably welcomes its efforts, Damascus isn't necessarily calling the shots."

Defensive measures

Of course, military planners for the United States and its allies are well aware of the threat that Syria could pose in the event of any foreign intervention and will be making preparations.

Britain's Ministry of Defence said Thursday that it was moving six Typhoon interceptor fast jets to a Royal Air Force base on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus as a defensive measure, shortly before lawmakers in the House of Commons voted down a proposal on UK military intervention.

"This is a precautionary measure, specifically aimed at protecting UK interests and the defense of our Sovereign Base Areas at a time of heightened tension in the wider region," the ministry said. "They are not deploying to take part in any military action against Syria."

Cyprus Foreign Minister Ioannis Kasoulides said he believed the likelihood of any reprisal from Syria "is very remote"

But, he said, Cyprus's security services are considering certain security measures, including "vigilance against any asymmetrical activity in Cyprus, terrorism" and will be prepared to help out in case any mass evacuation is needed of Europeans or "citizens of other friendly countries."

Maher also thinks retaliation by al-Assad is unlikely.

"I think he will weather the storm, absorb what will be a token gesture in terms of a few cruise missile strikes, and will go back to business as usual," he said.

CNN's Barbara Starr, Nick Paton Walsh, Henry Shirley, Nic Robertson, Christian DuChateau, Matt Smith, Brian Todd, Forrest Brown and Chris Lawrence contributed to this report.

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