Inside the Air War Over Syria: A High Altitude ‘Poker Game’


Near the Tabqa Dam on the Euphrates River after Syrian fighters with American air support captured it from Islamic State militants this month.

AL UDEID AIR BASE, Qatar — The salvo of American cruise missiles launched at a Syrian airfield last month was intended as a one-time message to dissuade President Bashar al-Assad from mounting another chemical weapons attack.

But at the high-tech command center here, the challenges for Lt. Gen. Jeffrey L. Harrigian, who oversees air operations in the Middle East, were just beginning.

General Harrigian had to protect American and allied troops from possible retaliation by Syrian warplanes as well as keep up airstrikes in and around the Islamic State stronghold of Raqqa, Syria. All the while, Syrian and Russian air defenses were on heightened alert, raising the risk to American and coalition aircrews in their campaign against the militants, also known as ISIS.

“If the Syrians were going to make a run at our guys, we were going to be in a position to defend them ourselves,” General Harrigian said in an interview. “The intent was to be in position to support our guys and get back into fighting ISIS.”

Some of the military’s most important operations have taken place thousands of feet in the air over Syria, all but invisible to the American public. A reporter for The New York Times was given access to the command center, offering a rare glimpse into how the military plans and orchestrates the complex ballet of strike, surveillance and refueling aircraft that keeps the war going around the clock.

A Base in the Desert

An outsize illustration of the principle “if you build it, they will come,” Al Udeid was constructed in a baking stretch of desert 20 miles south of Doha when Qatar had little air force of its own but was prepared to spend billions to build an airfield that a friendly superpower could use in a crisis. After the Sept. 11 attacks, the Bush administration began basing American warplanes here to carry out airstrikes in Afghanistan, though their deployment was initially kept secret.

Jeffrey L. Harrigian, then a major general, at a Pentagon briefing in 2014.

Saul Loeb / Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Al Udeid continued to grow in importance thanks in part to Saudi Arabia, which became uneasy about hosting the American military, including its regional air operations center. It was moved here in 2003 from Prince Sultan Air Base south of Riyadh soon after the American-led invasion of Iraq.

Today, the American-led command center at this heavily secured base oversees air operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and other potential hot spots in the Middle East. The cavernous operations center is crammed with liaison officers from countries in the American-led coalition, the American military services, intelligence experts and officers who plan and direct the missions.

The challenge in operating in Syria’s crowded airspace is clear from a glance at a large video screen inside the center that tracks aircraft across the region. Russian and Syrian planes are marked with yellow and orange icons; American and allied planes are delineated in green while civilian aircraft are blue.

Regular phone calls from Al Udeid to the Russian base at Latakia, Syria, are used to avoid conflicting operations. (An unclassified Gmail account is used as a backup.)

But as American destroyers in the Mediterranean prepared to launch dozens of cruise missiles on April 7 at the Syrian airfield used to mount a nerve-gas attack, it was clear that General Harrigian’s mission was about to become more complicated.

Testing and Assessing

One big concern was that the stack of American warplanes providing close air support for Syrian fighters clashing with Islamic State fighters near Raqqa, their self-proclaimed capital, and the Tabqa Dam about 30 miles away. The aircraft were vulnerable to Syrian surface-to-air missiles that the United States could no longer ignore.

“In Raqqa, you are kind of right in the heart of the integrated air defense,” said General Harrigian, who likes to climb into the cockpit of an F-22 to get a firsthand look at operations in Syria and at the American-supported Iraqi offensive in Mosul.

Another danger was that the Syrian Air Force might try to retaliate by mounting an airstrike against American or allied forces — or the Syrian fighters they advise.

To deal with the potential fallout, General Harrigian developed a step-by-step plan intended to “test and assess” the Syrian and Russian reactions. In a situation in which the small measure of trust between the rival forces was gone, American aircraft would pull back, then gradually start edging back into Syrian airspace.

“What I told the guys was, ‘I want a deliberate approach to regain our ability to operate in here. We’ve got to do it over time,’” General Harrigian recalled.

To keep up the pressure on the Islamic State, armed drones were positioned in and around Raqqa.

And, to give the United States a means of intercepting any Syrian aircraft that tried to strike American and allied forces, F-22s were ordered to fly around the clock in northeast Syria.

Though the F-22 is primarily an air-to-air fighter, it can also carry 250-pound bombs, which gave it the capability to conduct airstrikes against ISIS as it ventured south. F-22s are also equipped with an advanced electronic system to detect emissions from enemy radars and surface-to-air missiles.

Civilians displaced by the civil war left Raqqa, Syria, for a refugee camp in nearby Ain Issa this month.

Rodi Said / Reuters

Also adding to the American ability to monitor Syrian airspace, an American Awacs radar surveillance plane was positioned on the Iraqi-Syrian border, just outside the range of the SA-23 air defense system the Russians have deployed.

Neither the Syrians nor the Russians challenged the F-22s. General Harrigian next sent F-15Es into Syria, though he noted that he was careful to position them “a little farther to the east.” Though not stealthy, the F-15E’s could carry larger bombs along with their air-to-air missiles and could quickly maneuver east if they were threatened by Syria’s surface-to-air missiles.

“I wanted to make sure I had airplanes that could defend themselves against an integrated air defense missile getting shot at them, a SAM,” General Harrigian said, referring to the missiles.

All the while, General Harrigian met daily with key aides to review intelligence and feedback from aircrews that had just conducted missions before deciding where to insert other aircraft.

“It was a poker game,” he recalled. “I put down a card; they put down a card. And I’m sitting at the head of the table deciding every day when I was going to put the next captain to go a little bit deeper in.”

An Hourslong Battle

But few plans survive contact with the enemy — in this case, the Islamic State.

As a precaution against Syrian or Russian retaliation, the United States and its allies had withdrawn their Special Operations Forces who were training and advising local Syrian fighters near al-Tanf, a Syrian town close to the intersection of the Syrian, Iraq and Jordanian borders.

Defense Decretary Jim Mattis, center, as he arrived last month at the Al Udeid Air Base near Doha, Qatar.

Pool photo by Jonathan Ernst

The day after the cruise missile attack, more than two dozen Islamic State militants, donning uniforms similar to those worn by the Syrian fighters, attacked the garrison, using suicide bombers to breach its defenses.

With Islamic State fighters inside the perimeter, caution was put aside. F-18s, F-15Es and a B-52 bomber raced to the scene.

“We were there in minutes over the top of them,” General Harrigian said. “My intent was, ‘Hey, we are going to be deliberate about this, but if we’ve got to go support troops in contact, we are going to get after it.’”

After an hourslong firefight, the militants were routed. Several Syrian fighters were wounded, but there were no American or allied casualties.

Quieting the Enemy

In the weeks after, the Syrians, Russians and Americans have kept an uneasy watch on each other.

“My assessment is that they were worried about another strike occurring,” General Harrigian said of the Syrian military. “They used their radars basically to gain an understanding of where we were at.”

With neither the Syrians nor the Russians making obvious threatening moves, General Harrigian gave the go-ahead to insert other aircraft into Syria, including A-10s attack planes and B-52s. But the commander was still wary.

“We’re not back to normal,” he said. “I still watch it every day.”

Those words turned out to be prophetic. On Thursday, Iranian-backed fighters that have supported Mr. Assad headed toward al-Tanf. Coalition planes fired warning shots at their convoy but failed to get it to turn around. Finally, the aircraft struck, destroying several tanks. That same day, a Syrian SU-22 aircraft that flew into the area was turned away by American F-22 pilots who did not fire a shot.

The situation near al-Tanf has been quiet since then, but no one is sure for how long.

May 24, 2017 | Comments »

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