A few points I wanted to highlight from meetings today --
I spent most of the afternoon at the Pentagon with the USAF strategic studies group -- guys who spend their time trying to understand and explain to the USAF chief the big picture in areas where they're operating in. It was just myself and four other guys at the Lieutenant Colonel level, including one French and one British representative who are liaising with the US currently out of DC.
They wanted to grill me on the strategic picture on Syria, so after that I got to grill them on the military picture. There is still a very low level of understanding of what is actually at stake in Syria, what's the strategic interest there, the Turkish role, the Iranian role, etc. After a couple hours of talking, they said without saying that SOF teams (presumably from US, UK, France, Jordan, Turkey) are already on the ground focused on recce missions and training opposition forces. One Air Force intel guy (US) said very carefully that there isn't much of a Free Syrian Army to train right now anyway, but all the operations being done now are being done out of 'prudence.' The way it was put to me was, 'look at this way -- the level of information known on Syrian OrBat this month is the best it's been since 2001.' They have been told to prepare contingencies and be ready to act within 2-3 months, but they still stress that this is all being done as contingency planning, not as a move toward escalation.
I kept pressing on the question of what these SOF teams would be working toward, and whether this would lead to an eventual air camapign to give a Syrian rebel group cover. They pretty quickly distanced themselves from that idea, saying that the idea 'hypothetically' is to commit guerrilla attacks, assassination campaigns, try to break the back of the Alawite forces, elicit collapse from within. There wouldn't be a need for air cover, and they wouldn't expect these Syrian rebels to be marching in columns anyway.
They emphasized how the air campaign in Syria makes Libya look like a piece of cake. Syrian air defenses are a lot more robust and are much denser, esp around Damascus and on the borders with Israel, Turkey. THey are most worried about mobile air defenses, particularly the SA-17s that they've been getting recently. It's still a doable mission, it's just not an easy one.
The main base they would use is Cyprus, hands down. Brits and FRench would fly out of there. They kept stressing how much is stored at Cyprus and how much recce comes out of there. The group was split on whether Turkey would be involved, but said Turkey would be pretty critical to the mission to base stuff out of there. EVen if Turkey had a poltiical problem with Cyprus, they said there is no way the Brits and the FRench wouldn't use Cyprus as their main air force base. Air Force Intel guy seems pretty convinced that the Turks won't participate (he seemed pretty pissed at them.)
There still seems to be a lot of confusion over what a military intervention involving an air campaign would be designed to achieve. It isn't clear cut for them geographically like in Libya, and you can't just create an NFZ over Homs, Hama region. This would entail a countrywide SEAD campaign lasting the duration of the war. They dont believe air intervention would happen unless there was enough media attention on a massacre, like the Ghadafi move against Benghazi. They think the US would have a high tolerance for killings as long as it doesn't reach that very public stage. Theyre also questiioning the skills of the Syrian forces that are operating the country's air defenses currently and how signfiicant the Iranian presence is there. Air Force Intel guy is most obsessed with the challenge of taking out Syria's ballistic missile capabilities and chem weapons. With Israel rgiht there and the regime facing an existential crisis, he sees that as a major complication to any military intervention.
The post 2011 SOFA with Iraq is still being negotiated. These guys were hoping that during Biden's visit that he would announce a deal with Maliki, but no such luck. They are gambling ont he idea that the Iraqis remember the iran-iraq war and that maliki is not going to want to face the threat of Iranian jets entering Iraqi air space. THey say that most US fighter jets are already out of Iraq and transferred to Kuwait. They explained that's the beauty of the air force, the base in Kuwait is just a hop, skip and jump away from their bases in Europe, ie. very easy to rapidly build up when they need to. They don't seem concerned about the US ability to restructure its forces to send a message to Iran. They gave the example of the USS Enterprise that was supposed to be out of commission already and got extended another couple years to send to the gulf. WHen the US withdraws, we'll have at least 2 carriers in the gulf out of centcom and one carrier in the Med out of EuCom. I asked if the build-up in Kuwait and the carrier deployments are going to be enough to send a message to Iran that the US isn't going anywhere. They responded that Iran will get the message if they read the Centcom Web Site. STarting Jan. 1 expect them to be publishing all over the place where the US is building up.
Another concern they have about an operation in Syria is whether Iran could impede operations out of Balad air force base in Iraq.
The French representative was of hte opinion that Syria won't be a libya-type situation in that France would be gung-ho about going in. Not in an election year. The UK rep also emphasized UK reluctance but said that the renegotiation of the EU treaty undermines the UK role and that UK would be looking for ways to reassert itself on the continent ( i dont really think a syria campaign is the way to do that.) UK guy mentioned as an aside that the air force base commander at Cyprus got switched out from a maintenance guy to a guy that flew Raptors, ie someone that understands what it means to start dropping bombs. He joked that it was probably a coincidence.
Prior to that, I had a meeting with an incoming Kuwaiti diplomat (will be coded as KU301.) His father was high up in the regime, always by the CP's/PM's side. The diplo himself still seems to be getting his feet wet in DC (the new team just arrived less than 2 weeks ago,) but he made pretty clear that Kuwait was opening the door to allowing US to build up forces as needed. THey already have a significant presence there, and a lot of them will be on 90-day rotations. He also said that the SOFA that the US signs with Baghdad at the last minute will be worded in such a way that even allowing one trainer in the country can be construed to mean what the US wants in terms of keeping forces in Iraq. Overall, I didnt get the impression from him that Kuwait is freaked out about the US leaving. Everyhting is just getting rearranged. The Kuwaitis used to be much better at managing their relations with Iran, but ever since that spy ring story came out a year ago, it's been bad. He doesn't think Iran has significant covert capabililiteis in the GCC states, though they are trying. Iranian activity is mostly propaganda focused. He said that while KSA and Bahrain they can deal with it as needed and black out the media, Kuwait is a lot more open and thus provides Iran with more oppotunity to shape perceptions (he used to work in inforamtion unit in Kuwait.) He says there is a sig number of kuwaitis that listen to Iranian media like Al Alam especially.
On the Kuwaiti political scene -- the government is having a harder time dealing with a more emboldened opposition, but the opposition is still extremely divided, esp among the Islamists. The MPs now all have to go back to their tribes to rally support for the elections to take place in Feb. Oftentimes an MP in Kuwait city will find out that he has lost support back home with the tribe, and so a lot of moeny is handed out. The govt is hoping that witha clean slate they can quiet the opposition down. A good way of managing the opposition he said is to refer cases to the courts, where they can linger forever. good way for the govt to buy time. He doesnt believe the Arab League will take significant action against Syria -- no one is interested in military intervention. they just say it to threaten it.