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Why Sustained Action Against Syria Is More Than Airstrikes


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.


And I'm Steve Inskeep. Two years after the start of Syria's civil war, amid allegations of chemical weapons use and reports of an Israeli airstrike, the United States still faces the same question.

GREENE: That question is what, if anything, the U.S. should do. For now, President Obama is focusing on diplomacy. His secretary of state, John Kerry, is in Moscow today.

INSKEEP: He's meeting Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, up to now a vital supporter of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

GREENE: At the same time, calls for U.S. military action are increasing. One seemingly easy option would be to use American air power.

INSKEEP: But that option may be more complicated than it seems. Here's NPR's Larry Abramson.

LARRY ABRAMSON, BYLINE: For months, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey has warned that Syria's air defenses are formidable. But Israel has now apparently hit Syria three times this year without any problems. So Republican Sen. John McCain told Fox News Sunday, he wonders about Dempsey's assessments.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: These air defenses that the Syrians have are so tough, and we would have such - but the Israelis seem to be able to penetrate it fairly easily.

ABRAMSON: But many experts say the comparison doesn't hold up. Retired Lt. Gen. Dave Deptula was in charge of the no-fly zone established over Northern Iraq in 1991, after the first Gulf War. Deptula says Iraq, too, had an impressive air-defense system.

DAVE DEPTULA: Yes, he did; and we eliminated the vast majority of it.

ABRAMSON: That would be required in Syria, too, if U.S. planes were to stay and control the skies - very different from Israeli planes making a quick strike and returning home. Deptula says a U.S. no-fly zone would also require an armada of different types of aircraft; to do surveillance, conduct electronic warfare, and refuel all those other planes. And getting those aircraft in place would be a huge challenge.

Anthony Cordesmann, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says the situation is completely different from Libya two years ago, where Western forces successfully shut down Moammar Gadhafi's air force.

ANTHONY CORDESMANN: And this isn't something where you can fly out of readily available bases in Italy. It is an area where you are simply too far away from most U.S. basing.

ABRAMSON: Cordesmann says the U.S. would have to establish temporary bases in Jordan or Turkey - both, countries that would likely hesitate before taking hostile steps against a neighbor. Cordesmann says there's no question the U.S. could stop the Syrian air force from flying, but he says it's not a walk in the park.

Larry Abramson, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Larry Abramson is NPR's National Security Correspondent. He covers the Pentagon, as well as issues relating to the thousands of vets returning home from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.