U.S. soldiers with the 3rd Battalion, 2nd Air Defense Artillery Regiment talk after a routine inspection of a Patriot missile battery at a Turkish military base in Gaziantep, Turkey, on Feb. 26. U.S. and NATO Patriot missile batteries and personnel deployed to Turkey in support of NATO's commitment to defending Turkey's security during a period of regional instability. (Master Sgt. Sean M. Worrell / Air Force)
As the U.S. deliberates military strikes in response to reports of chemical weapons being used against civilians in Syria, about 200 soldiers from the 1st Armored Division have been in Jordan since June assisting in efforts to contain violence along the border.
The deployment of those troops was announced in April by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, and included planners and specialists in intelligence and logistics.
The Army also has two Patriot batteries — about 400 soldiers — in Turkey as part of a NATO mission to protect that country from attack by Syria, and about a battalion’s worth of soldiers in the Sinai Peninsula serving in the Multinational Force & Observers mission.
The Army has not released any information on how it might be preparing for possible military action in Syria, but White House spokesman Jay Carney on Tuesday said that while a decision about the use of military force has not been made, “the president has made clear that he does not envision a situation in Syria that would lead to U.S. boots on the ground, and that remains the case.”
This appears to be in line with experts who have said any military operation in Syria likely will be short-lived.
Yet, a strike on Syria appears imminent despite deep reluctance from the White House, warnings from the Pentagon’s top brass that military intervention might be a bad idea, and an American public that has almost no interest in seeing the U.S. get drawn into another Middle East conflict.
Top U.S. officials have been clear, almost emphatic, that any air strikes on the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad are not intended to alter the balance of power in the two-year-old Syrian civil war. The Pentagon’s top brass fears that massive military strikes will empower the Islamic extremist groups who are now a key pillar of the Syrian rebel forces and are linked to the same insurgent groups that were killing U.S. troops in nearby Iraq just a few years ago.
The main U.S. goal is to mete out some punishment for the Syrian dictator for using chemical weapons against civilians. In effect, it’s backing up President Obama’s remark in August 2012 that using chemical weapons was a “red line” that would “change my equation” about military involvement in Syria.
As the military awaits orders from the White House, many defense officials expect any operation would involve Navy ships launching dozens of Tomahawk missiles at Syrian targets.
When it comes to high tech strikes, Syria would be over-matched in a fight with the U.S. military, according to a military cyber official.
Syria’s cyber capabilities, if the Syrian Electronic Army’s rudimentary and easily attributable attack on the New York Times is an example, are not a serious threat, he said.
“When you’ve got an attribution level that’s immediate, that tells you that their technical prowess is low,” the official said. “I would not put Syria in the class of capabilities, like a France or an Israel, by far.”
Should U.S. forces intervene in Syria, the commander in chief would decide whether those forces are targeting, conducting intelligence or offering support to the Syrian rebels. A cyber attack on the Syrian government especially would require the president’s approval — and it would have to be well-considered.
“If you use a certain [system exploit], you burn that; once they know you’re inside the system, you’ve lost the capability to use that again,” the official said.
U.S. forces could use electronic warfare to jam the Syrian military’s communications systems, command and control [of their weapons platforms] while working to organize the rebels and establish their command and control networks.
“If you could put them on an even playing field, like in Libya, and people see the rebels winning, other people will start fighting with the rebels,” he said.
As they did in Libya, U.S. forces could use F/A-18 Growler and EA-6B Prowler aircraft to launch electronic attacks to disrupt the Syrian military’s command and control networks.
While Syria does not have long-range jamming capabilities, it does have integrated air defenses. Still Israel in 2007 was reportedly able to employ a U.S.-developed network control tool called “Suter” to control and mislead those defenses, and fly in unmolested.
For the soldiers who are already on the ground in the region, their work will continue.
Maj. Gen. Dana Pittard, who commanded the 1st Armored Division when Hagel announced the deployment of his soldiers to Jordan, said at the time that he expected the mission to last at least through the end of the year and likely for a full year.
He also expected the soldiers would partner with the Jordanian armed forces and the U.S. embassy there. They also would likely participate and assist in humanitarian assistance, stability operations and training their Jordanian partners, he said.
“In many ways, the Jordanians have been inundated with refugees coming from Syria,” Pittard has said. “The Jordanians have set up a number of refugee camps, and some of those camps are overflowing. That can cause some instability, so we’re there to help and coordinate as much as we possibly can.”
The soldiers in the Patriot batteries currently stationed in Turkey deployed in January from Fort Sill, Okla.
Because they are serving in a NATO mission, the approximately 400 soldiers from 3rd Battalion, 2nd Air Defense Artillery Regiment, 31st Air Defense Artillery Brigade, are joined by two Dutch and two German batteries.
The creation of this force was largely prompted by two incidents earlier in 2012: the shooting down of a Turkish jet by Syrian forces in June and the killing of five Turkish civilians in Turkey by Syrian shelling in October, according to NATO.
Officials have emphasized that their mission is “defensive only.” The mission is also expected to last about a year.
Another 400 soldiers from 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division, are scheduled to begin their deployment to the Sinai Peninsula in the coming weeks.
They will be part of the Multinational Force & Observers mission, a long-term peacekeeping effort.
Staff writer Andrew Tilghman contributed to this report.