'Syria's air defenses a joke': defector

BEIRUT, Lebanon, Oct. 15 (UPI) -- As the West debates military intervention in Syria, a former Syrian general says a single U.S. aircraft carrier and U.S. combat jets based in neighboring Turkey would be enough to control a 75-mile-deep northern no-fly zone for anti-regime rebels.

Retired Brig. Gen. Akil Hashem, a supporter of the Free Syrian Army and a staunch advocate of Western intervention, calls the embattled regime of President Bashar al-Assad "a paper tiger."


He claims that there's widespread disaffection within the Syrian officer corps, but tight internal security by Assad's all-pervasive intelligence services make it difficult for senior officers to defect.

According to U.S. analyst Michael Weiss, who spoke with Hashem in London recently, the general claims that the U.S. administration of President Barack Obama has "purposefully overestimated the regime's fighting capability and underestimated the opposition's" to reject military intervention to bring about regime-change.


Hashem argues that a no-fly zone could be imposed over the northern provinces of Idlib and Aleppo, within reach of the Turkish border over which men and weapons are infiltrated to the rebels, because the FSA and other insurgent factions are well-entrenched there and taking on regime forces all the time.

They've been hitting at least two of the seven airbases in that region, destroying weapons systems and equipment. At the Abu Duhur facility, they allegedly knocked out 8-12 helicopters on the ground and shot down two others.

"One U.S. aircraft carrier with 80 or 85 sophisticated air fighters, plus the Incirlik airbase in southern Turkey, is enough to do the job," Hashem says.

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With a 75-mile-deep no-fly zone, in which U.S. jets would shoot down any marauding Syrian aircraft -- similar to the operations conducted by U.S.-led forces in southern and northern Iraq during the 1990s to neutralize Saddam Hussein – "you can control that entire area with air-to-air missiles from F-16 or F-18 fighter jets.

"These missiles have a range of 80 kilometers, so Western or Turkish aircraft would only need to enter 40 kilometers of Syrian airspace to maintain air supremacy," Hashem argued.

The regime's increasing use of fighter-bombers and helicopter gunships against rebel forces across the country, including the capital Damascus and Aleppo, Syria's commercial heart, would seem to indicate how Assad and his inner circle are becoming deeply worried about the rebels' growing military capabilities and coordination.


But air power has its limitations.

Hashem, who fought against Israel in the 1967, 1973 and 1982 wars, recalled how the Israeli air force savaged Syrian air defenses during the 1982 invasion of Lebanon in a lop-sided victory achieved through high-tech weapons systems and innovative doctrine that totally flatfooted the Soviet-trained Syrians, hamstrung by a rigid operational system.

"Nineteen of our 20 tank batteries -- each battery consisting of five tanks and each tank equipped with three SAM-6 missiles -- were wiped out in a single strike," he said.

"Ninety-three of our aircraft were shot down in a two-hour air battle with the Israelis. No Israeli planes were shot down. This happened over the Bekaa Valley. I was there in Lebanon at the time."

Joe Holliday, a former U.S. intelligence analyst now with the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington think-tank, said that to enforce a no-fly zone the Syrian air force could be swiftly eliminated on the ground "with cruise missiles and stealth bombers.

"Destroying aircraft on the runways alone could have a huge impact on the regime's ability to field air power," he observed.

The regime, he noted, had "no more than 350 combat-capable jets, a huge proportion of which are designed for air-to-air combat, not for attacking ground targets.


"In fact, the regime has relied largely on its trainer jets to bombard Aleppo."

Reports from Damascus suggest that Assad has personally taken over day-to-day control of counter-insurgency operations, a move which, if true, suggests a growing desperation within the regime.

This could be partly due to the assassination of Assad's top security advisers, including his brother-in-law Maj. Gen. Assef Shawkat, in a July 18 bombing in Damascus.

Assad's takeover, observed political analyst Michel Young in Beirut, "represents an implicit admission that things have been amiss militarily."

Assad's supporters, he said, "now have direct confirmation of their worst fears."

Reports that Assad's sister, Bushra, Shawkat's widow, has fled to the United Arab Emirates in the Persian Gulf, indicate the regime could be fraying.

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