Syria: west weighs up military options at meeting of top generals in Jordan

With substantial hardware already in region, analysts say first move likely to be show of force without engaging Syria’s military

The increasingly bellicose statements on Syria coming from London and Washington will sharpen the focus of Monday’s meeting of top US, British, French and other generals in the Jordanian capital of Amman.

The summit will be led by General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, and his Jordanian counterpart, and attended by General Sir Nicholas Houghton, the British armed forces chief. It will take place little more than 100 miles from Damascus, where an apparent chemical weapons attack killed hundreds of civilians last week.

Top generals from Germany, Canada, Italy, Saudi Arabia and Qatar are also expected to attend a meeting which will coincide with UN weapons experts visiting the site of the attack in an attempt to determine what happened and who was behind it.

The key players in any possible strike against Syria, widely considered to be the US, Britain and France, already have substantial military muscle in the area. Britain has four warships, the Navy’s flagship HMS Bulwark, a helicopter carrier and two frigates off Albania. The US has a group of three destroyers in the eastern Mediterranean, which it has bolstered with a fourth, the USS Mahan. France has Rafale and Mirage jets based in the United Arab Emirates which could potentially reach Syria, though the US airbases at Incirlik and Izmir in Turkey and the RAF base at Akrotiri in Cyprus are more likely launch points for any offensive.

The Ministry of Defence is drawing up attack plans that one well-placed official described as a “Libyan suite of options”, a reference to the naval, air and land strategies that were considered in the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. A key difference is the strength of Syria’s air defences.

In recent years, Russia is reported to have supplied Damascus with 36 Pantsir mobile surface to air missile systems and at least eight Buk-M2E mobile surface to air missile batteries. The Pantsirs, considered particularly effective against attacking aircraft, feature a combination of 30mm cannon paired with a radar and anti-aircraft missiles all on the same vehicle.

Western options include strikes by Tornado jets equipped with £500,000-a-shot Storm Shadow long-range cruise missiles which can be fired 150 miles from the target, allowing pilots to avoid the need to come within range of Syrian air defences. The US warships in the region are carrying Tomahawk cruise missiles and Washington has F-16 fighter jets and Patriot missile batteries in Jordan.

“President Obama has asked the defence department to prepare options for all contingencies,” the US defence secretary, Chuck Hagel, said over the weekend. “We have done that and we are prepared to exercise whatever option, if he decides to employ one of those options.”

The question is how to wield western military might against a regime with relatively strong air defences, chemical weapons capabilities and a powerfully ally in Russia. “There are not going to be ground troops, that’s for sure,” …read more