Week of April 13th, 2018

America, Britain, and France Strike Syria

The US, France, and Britain struck Syrian chemical weapons facilities before dawn on Saturday April 14, 2018. As is usual in war, both sides claimed success. The US claimed all the targets were successfully hit, while Syria said most of the missiles launched by the three nations were successfully intercepted by its air defense systems.

Syria, Russia and Iran responded angrily. Russian President Putin denounced the attacks as, “an act of aggression.” Iran’s Supreme Leader Khamenei called it “a war crime.” The Syrian foreign ministry described it as “barbarous aggression.” Residents of Damascus celebrated because the attack was less than feared.

The attack saw the debut of a new American missile – the JASSM. Its use had been predicted when Trump promised the employment of a new and “smart” missile.

The purported evidence that Syrian forces had used chemical weapons took days to assemble and seems to have come from National Security Agency intercepts.   Just last Wednesday Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis responded, “We’re still working on this,” when asked about if the Assad regime was responsible.

“We’re still assessing the intelligence — ourselves and our allies. We’re still working on this.”

A reporter asked, “Is the U.S. military ready right now to conduct a retaliatory strike if ordered?”

Mattis replied, “We stand ready to provide military options if they’re appropriate as the president determined.”

The key “evidence” according to US briefers in a White House conference call was a string of communications from Syria’s high command, through the chemical weapons units ordering the attack, and high-resolution images of symptoms on victims of Chlorine and Sarin.


The Attack

The 2017 strike against Shayrat, Syria ordered by Trump was largely symbolic in the eyes of the US. The airfields attacked were quickly repaired. Consequently, the US wanted this offensive against Syria to appear more comprehensive, which is why this attack used twice as many missiles.

The Pentagon said the attacks were directed towards three CW targets, including the Barzah Research and Development Center near Damascus and two targets near Homs, including the Him Shinshar Chemical Weapons Storage Site and a command post. The targets and timing were picked so as to limit any potential of causing civilian casualties.

The attack included US naval forces in the Mediterranean, Red Sea and Arabian Gulf. There were also British Tornado aircraft from Cyprus and a French warship. The US also employed two B-1 bombers and the first use of the JASSM missile, which has stealth characteristics. B-1 bombers have “nape of the earth” flying capability that allows them to penetrate air space under most radar.

The British fighter aircraft used Storm Shadow missiles against the Homs targets and returned safely to Cyprus.

Although the Syrian air defense system launched 40 surface-to-air missiles, Pentagon briefer claimed that none hit their targets, and most of them were launched after the strike as the allied missile strike was coordinated to hit its targets within a window of a few minutes.

Care was taken to avoid hitting Russian facilities and air defense systems. The US had warned Russia through “deconfliction” lines of communication that a strike might take place and although Russia had activated its air defense radar, it did not carry out any attacks.

Although the Russians didn’t take any action with their air defense system, the US, France, and Britain had deployed additional aircraft to “spoof” Russian systems with electronic countermeasures if necessary.


The Future

Although this attack is over, that doesn’t mean the US and its allies will go away. There appears to be a buildup for future action if necessary.

The US is moving naval forces designed to counter Russian air attacks. One is the USS Monterey, a Ticonderoga class cruiser with the Aegis anti-air system onboard. The Aegis was specifically designed to counter massed Russian aircraft and missile attacks.

American fighter aircraft, reconnaissance aircraft, P-8 Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft and refueling aircraft are deploying to the region – probably in Cyprus.

However, it appears that the US is planning on putting more assets in the area. A carrier strike group containing the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman and 7 other warships is being sent to the Mediterranean. It will take over a week to sail from the US to the eastern Mediterranean. The USS Truman will be replacing the USS Theodore Roosevelt, which was in the Middle East for a while.

The USS Truman is finishing a training period after a 10 month maintenance period. The last time the Truman was in the region was 2015. This means the carrier air wing may want to conduct some training in the region before carrying out extensive operations.

If necessary, an Amphibious Ready Group could be moved from the Red Sea area to the eastern Mediterranean. Although these are primarily for amphibious operations, they do contain some air assets.

A carrier strike force and an amphibious ready group offer the US a number of options especially with the unavailability of Turkish airfields.

A carrier air wing offers a variety of manned aircraft that can not only carry out attacks but can attempt to neutralize Syrian and Russian air defense systems in Syria. This would allow for attacks on well defended sites that might be able to shoot down cruise missiles.

A carrier strike force also allows long term operations instead of the short impact of a cruise missile attack.

And, although Trump has said he wants to pull out of Syria, an amphibious group could be used to land Marines in parts of Syria to assist US Special forces or allied militia forces like the Kurds.

The Sachssen class German frigate FGS Hessen, will be joining the strike group although the Germans have refrained from taking any action against Syria.


What will the Russian Response be?

Russia clearly tried to stay out of the conflict. It didn’t activate its air defense system in Syria, even though the allied aircraft and missiles were within range. This indicates that Russia is not planning on using its S-400 to escalate the conflict.

Russian warships left their port of Tartus. Currently, as part of the permanent Russian Navy in the Mediterranean Sea, there are about 15 warships and vessels. Although they have threatened the allied task force off Syria, the Russian ships have much less capability.

Russia did let fly with words. Russian ambassador to the US, Anataloy Antonov posted on Facebook, “the worst apprehensions have come true. Our warnings have been left unheard.”

Antonov went on to warn, “A pre-designed scenario is being implemented. Again, we are being threatened. We warned that such actions will not be left without consequences.”

However, there appears that little else will be done. The US, Britain and France were careful to avoid targets with Russian personnel. And, it still remains in communications with Russian military units in Syria in order to prevent any clashes.

Russia could take action against the US/British/French task force in the Eastern Mediterranean, but that would lead to a major conflict.

Russia could activate its air defense systems in Syria if another attack takes place.

While Putin is supporting his ally President Assad, his eye is on other issues – notably, avoiding new sanctions targeting Moscow and ensuring that the upcoming soccer World Cup, which Putin sees as critical to attract much-needed foreign investment and credibility, takes place.

This calculation takes on added import due to the international furor that followed Russia’s suspected poisoning of a British intelligence agent and his daughter. Putin did not expect the diplomatic blowback that has followed that attack and has been unable to extricate Russia from it.

Put simply, Putin wants the Syrian chemical issue off the news radar. Escalating against the United States in response to any U.S. strikes would not serve that objective.

More importantly, however, Putin knows that these U.S. strikes will not endanger President Assad’s position in Syria and thus Moscow’s overriding strategic interests.

While Putin has a penchant for aggressive surprise actions, he’s also a keen strategist who always looks to the long term. And for Russia, the long-term interest is Russia’s consolidation as a power broker in the Middle East.

Putin and Assad are winning on the ground and that is their focus.