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On the move

Martin Koch / cmkAugust 29, 2013

As evidence mounts that the Syrian army allegedly used chemical weapons against its own people, the United States, the United Kingdom and France are discussing punitive military measures.

USS Mahan (DDG 72), (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Lolita Lewis
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Since last week, members of the latest "coalition of the willing" - the United States, the United Kingdom and France - have been moving their forces into position in preparation for an imminent military strike against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

On Thursday, however, British Parliament voted against authorizing the government to engage in military measures against Syria.

In recent days, observers have noted increased military movements by the participating countries in the region, especially the naval forces. This would be quite useful for the planned two to three-day attack on Syria that was signaled by US President Barack Obama, said Sebastian Bruns, a fellow at the Institute for Security Policy at the University of Kiel (ISPK).

"Naval forces are able to stay well outside of the 12-mile zone in international waters and hit distant targets with cruise missiles," he said.

Potential maritime threat

Sebastian Bruns, M.A. Fellow Christian-Albrechts-Universität zu Kiel Institut für Sozialwissenschaften/Politikwissenschaft Institut für Sicherheitspolitik (ISPK) Department of Social Sciences/Political Science Institute for Security Policy (ISPK)
Bruns noted increased military movements in the regionImage: Privat

That's exactly what the allies appear to be planning. According to the ISPK, four US Navy destroyers are on their way to the eastern Mediterranean. On board each are 96 cruise missiles of the BGM-109 Tomahawk variety, steerable missiles with a range of 2,500 kilometers (around 1,550 miles).

The ships escorting two US aircraft carriers, currently in the Persian Gulf and at the Horn of Africa and also armed with Tomahawks that could reach targets in Syria.

The UK also has ships in the Mediterranean. However, a helicopter carrier and destroyer, as well as possibly a nuclear submarine, are on a long-planned training mission with neighboring Mediterranean countries, said Bruns.

"The French also probably have a nuclear submarine in the region, even if that's still a secret, in addition to an aircraft carrier which is currently still in the vicinity of France," he added.

The naval forces could lead to a visibly increased diplomatic pressure, said Bruns: "If heavy military units are coming together then from the view of the Assad regime there's the risk it could lead to actual retaliation," he said.

Illustration showing military vessels in the eastern Mediterranean Sea. DW

Attacking from a distance

The cruise missiles are part of the category known as "standoff missiles," weapons that can be fired and controlled from a distance and are able to achieve a similar effect as bombardment by a jet - but don't put pilots at risk of being shot down.

Former German Air Force general and Bundeswehr chief of staff Harald Kujat said the United States has another option, "The Americans also have long-range bombers, of the type B-1 and B-2, which could take off from the United States and fly right back."

But the Syrian air defense is also particularly powerful. The International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in London estimated that Syria has more than 1,000 Russian-made surface-to-air missiles, a fact the allies won't forget. "For that reason, the first strikes are likely to target these air defenses to eliminate the threat to their own side," said Kujat.

According to information from the Israeli military intelligence website DEBKAfile, the Syrian army has apparently begun to decentralize its troops, especially its military aircraft, making it harder for the allies to attack them.

USS Florida launches a Tomahawk cruise missile during Giant Shadow in the waters off the coast of the Bahamas in this file photograph taken in 2003 and released to Reuters on March 19, 2011. U.S. President Barack Obama will say on June 19, 2013, he will pursue a new reduction in deployed nuclear weapons by up to a third below the level achieved in the "New START" treaty with Russia, a senior administration official said. REUTERS/U.S. Navy photo/Handout/Files (UNITED STATES - Tags: MILITARY CIVIL UNREST CONFLICT POLITICS) ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. THIS PICTURE IS DISTRIBUTED EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS
The use of cruise missiles reduces the risk for soldiersImage: Reuters

ISPK expert Bruns said there are other targets which could be attacked: "These include regime institutions like command centers and telecommunications facilities, utilities, roads, railways and the like."

Regional bases

In addition to the unmanned cruise missiles and long-range bombers, the three countries have a variety of combat aircraft at their disposal which are stationed either on aircraft carriers or at military bases in the region. The British Tornado fighters can fire missiles from more than 200 kilometers away, allowing pilots to remain virtually inaccessible to the Syrian air defense. From the two British bases in Cyprus, pilots can reach targets in Syria in just 20 minutes.

The US Air Force has a base on the Greek island of Crete, and also uses a part of the main airport in Chania as a hub for transportation in the region. But in order to use the base for combat operations, the US would need permission from the Greek government.

The US also has a large base in Turkey, the Incirlik air base, also used by British forces. From there it's only 120 kilometers to the Syrian border, 400 kilometers to the capital, Damascus.

And Germany?

Harald Kujat, Foto: Karlheinz Schindler picture alliance/ZB
The first strikes will likely target Syria's air defenses, according to KujatImage: picture alliance/ZB

The threatened military strikes against Syria are the work of the US, the UK and France; Germany would play no role in this scenario. While the Bundeswehr is present in several places in the region, it's there under a UN or NATO mandate.

German soldiers, for instance, are participating in the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) mission to train the Libyan navy. They are also stationed in Turkey with Patriot anti-missile systems as part of the NATO mission to protect the Turkey-Syria border, and they control a reconnaissance boat for the NATO Response Force.

But according to military experts, it is very unlikely that these army units will be drawn into the current conflict.