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Who is Watching in Libya, What are They Learning, and What Does That Mean To Us?

By Jay Holmes

China, Syria, and Iran are watching the military operations being conducted by NATO forces in Libya with great attention.

China sent the 4,000 ton frigate, Xuzhou, into Libyan waters, supposedly to assist in evacuations of Chinese citizens from Libya. However, its real mission was likely an ad-hock attempt at quietly conducting SIGINT (SIGnals INTelligence) and ELINT (ELectronic INTelligence) operations against the Western powers involved in air operations in Libya. China will invest massive human resources into the analysis of any information it gathers, but it will use that information for long term planning and development rather than in any political decision making.

China expects no conflict with Western nations in the near future, and there is no reason to panic about China’s SIGINT efforts. Great Britain, Japan, and the United States conduct SIGINT and ELINT operations against China from international waters and air space every day of the week. In the last half century, China has come to understand that these operations do not foretell a pending invasion by Western powers. At the same time, we realize that any attempt by China to take possession of Hawaii will be conducted with real estate agents and stock brokers rather than frigates.

In the case of Syria, what they will learn is simple. They are (re)learning what their defeat would look like if NATO ever decided to invade Syria. The air power and missile barrage brought to bear in Libya are very minimal as compared to what a NATO launched attack could be. In Damascus, even the most politically connected, untalented general will have realized that moving or supplying Syrian forces anywhere in Syria will be nearly impossible with NATO air forces present.

The Syrian Air Force is far larger, better equipped, and better trained than the Libyan Air Force. But Syria is aware that the air power NATO is using in Libya is a token force by the standards of alliance, and that in any major conflict with NATO, the missile attack on Syria would be approximately four times larger and would destroy much of Syria’s air force within the first hour of war.

What Syria observes from the Libyan conflict will cause no major change in its strategy. It will simply continue with its sensible course of not provoking the West to invade, which, given the West’s generally defensive strategic stance, will not be difficult. The lessons learned from Libya will simply confirm the validity of that current strategic stance.

What Syria has newly learned from watching Libya is that it should avoid public threats to conduct genocide against its own citizens as protests are arising in Syria. That is a lesson that Gadhafi and his overconfident gangsters learned too late.

In the case of Iran, the Iranians will analyze information gained by observing the Libyan conflict with great interest. Unlike Syria and China, Iran does not assume there will be no conflict between itself and Western nations.

The two things about the tactical aspects of NATO operations that most interest Iran are the command and control methods of NATO air forces, and the effectiveness of the upgraded Tomahawk missiles employed against Libya. The strategic question of even greater interest to Iran concerns the fact that Western powers mobilized military force against Libya without waiting for the Western political tortoise race to conclude.

While the effectiveness of the air power of NATO nations and of the Tomahawk missiles will cause no great shock in Tehran, the fact that an attack took place in spite of the lack of complete agreement by Western powers is bad news for the ayatollahs and their generals. Iran may find itself recalculating the exact position of the “line in the sand” in their neighborhood.

In the twisted minds of the junta in Tehran, a military conflict with the West may seem like a glorious opportunity to be relished, rather than a threat to be feared. They see that as an improving opportunity over time as Iran improves its military capacity and accomplishes its goal of obtaining a nuclear weapon.

It would be interesting to be a fly on the wall in the weekly ayatollah update meetings in northern Iran this week. I would absolutely love to hear the well-educated Iranian generals trying to explain the implications of the conflict in Libya to the mostly-functionally-illiterate Supreme Council. Nothing in their years of memorizing the Koran and debating its obscure aspects have prepared the mullahs for leading a near nuclear power like Iran.

The Revolutionary Guard leaders are, no doubt, well-practiced in the art of smoothing over the most awkward of conversations between the megalomaniac ayatollahs and the frightened generals. After all, disagreeing with an ayatollah can cause spontaneous separation of the head from the neck.

I wonder how they draw lots to pick the poor fools that have to deliver the report to the all powerful and none-too-wise mullahs? Perhaps the medals that we see on the chests of Iranian admirals and generals were awarded for surviving some number of meetings with their political leadership. As long as Iran is unequipped by nuclear weapons I can enjoy laughing at their internal leadership situation. A nuclear weapon in the hands of the ignorant ayatollahs would not be quite so laughable.


2 thoughts on “ Who is Watching in Libya, What are They Learning, and What Does That Mean To Us?

  1. on ,
    Dave said:


    During a tactical response to specific events (such as Libya), how much do the strategic implications influence the actions taken? Would this be used as an opportunity to send a message to our favorite ayatollahs?

    It seems like there is a delicate balancing act required between using overwhelming force and ensuring that a few surprises are kept in store.

    • You raise some excellent issues. Thanks for stopping by and commenting. I’ll check with Holmes and see if he can address those questions.

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