Early on April 7, 2017, the United States Navy conducted Tomahawk missile strikes on al-Shayrat airbase in Homs, Syria, in retaliation for an alleged chemical weapons attack earlier in the week on Khan Sheikhoun, in opposition-controlled Idlib. The strikes mark the first time the United States has deliberately targeted the Syrian military since an uprising began in 2011.
In a statement regarding the attack, the Pentagon stated “[a] total of 59 TLAMs targeted aircraft, hardened aircraft shelters, petroleum and logistical storage, ammunition supply bunkers, air defense systems, and radars.” ‘TLAM’ is an acronym for Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles. The TLAMs were fired from USS Porter and USS Ross.
The extent of the damage was not immediately clear. The Russian Ministry of Defense said in a statement that only six MiG-23s had been destroyed,[i] while two defense sources told Fox News that 20 fixed-wing aircraft were destroyed.[ii]
— Thomas van Linge (@arabthomness) April 7, 2017
— شبكة شام الإخبارية (@shaamnews) April 7, 2017
U.S. President Donald Trump’s missile strikes drew swift support from U.S. allies and fierce condemnation from Russia, Syria, and Iran. Many opponents to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad hailed the attacks and called for further action against his government.
However, it is unclear if the strikes indicate any real shift in U.S. policy towards President Assad moving forward, despite calls from U.S. lawmakers and allies for further action against the Syrian military. The strikes were deliberately limited in nature, confined to a single airbase, which was not fully destroyed. President Trump called the TLAM strikes “in this vital, national security interest of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons.” He furthermore called “on all civilized nations to join us in seeking to end the slaughter and bloodshed in Syria.”[iii]
Tonight I ordered a targeted military strike…… pic.twitter.com/3nUzrdiGzX
— President Trump (@POTUS) April 7, 2017
Notably, though forceful in his rhetoric against President Assad, President Trump did not explicitly call for President Assad’s ouster. He did point out that previous efforts at changing President Assad’s behavior have not been successful, exasperating the refugee crisis and destabilizing the region.
But he was clear to identify that these strikes were a result of the alleged chemical weapons attacks in Idlib, leaving open to interpretation whether the United States would respond to any bombing of opposition-held territory that did not utilize chemical weapons. In the hours following the strikes on Shayrat, opposition activists reported that the Russian Aerospace Forces and Syrian Air Force had continued sorties against opposition-held territory, albeit from airbases other than Shayrat.
Moscow has called the attack a breach of international law and moved forcefully to respond. The Russian Foreign Ministry threatened to suspend a memorandum of understanding on air safety over Syria.[iv] That memorandum is intended to prevent incidents in Syrian airspace given the large number of Air Forces currently operating in Syrian skies and is seen as a way to avoid accidental collisions and clarify intentions between Air Forces.
Moreover, ship spotters along the Bosphorus noticed the return of Admiral Grigorovich, a Russian frigate, through the straits.[v] The ship had just finished a deployment to the Mediterranean and had returned to its base in the Black Sea. But a source told Tass News Agency that the frigate, armed with Kalibr cruise missiles, would instead travel back to the Mediterranean and dock at Tartus.[vi]
— Yörük Işık (@YorukIsik) April 7, 2017
The Chairman of the Russian Upper House Defense and Security Committee, Viktor Ozerov, took care to point out to Sputnik International in an interview that Russia maintains the S-400, S-300V4, and Pantsir-S1 air-defense systems in Syria.[vii] None of these systems were reported used against the U.S. Tomahawk missiles, but all are designed to detect, target, and intercept missiles, as well as aircraft.
Moreover, the Russian Ministry of Defense left open the prospect of bolstering the Syrian military’s own assets. The Ministry of Defense concluded its statement about the attacks with, “In the near future, the effectiveness of the Syrian Armed Forces air defence system will be improved in order to cover the most important objects of the Syrian infrastructure.”
President Trump and his advisers will assess the impact of the Tomahawk strikes in shaping their Syria policy – namely, the effect the strikes have on the Syrian Air Force’s willingness to conduct more chemical weapon attacks. The United States identified and avoided hitting apparent Syrian sarin gas depots to prevent hazards to civilians, which also would mean that the Syrian Air Force still has access to the sorts of chemical weapons that prompted the U.S. strikes in the first place.[viii]
The rapid change in circumstances throws the possibility of collaboration between the United States and Russia over the Syrian conflict into doubt. Both sides have sought to find a negotiated solution to the civil war while also rolling back territory owned by jihadist groups. The Tomahawk strikes may serve to further strain negotiations that have thus far been unable to produce even a stable ceasefire between warring groups, let alone a feasible political solution.
President Trump will likely feel pressure in the coming days to consider enacting a no-fly zone over all or part of Syria. He may also consider creating so-called ‘safe zones’ in some areas of the country. Soon after taking office, President Trump indicated he would “absolutely do safe zones in Syria for the people,”[ix] without further specifying. Proponents of greater action in Syria will likely raise that point with him over the coming days.
These options come with their own risks, especially the no-fly zone, which would pit American aircraft against not just Russian aircraft but a range of Russian air-defenses stationed in Syria. When met with the same obstacles, President Trump’s predecessor, former U.S. President Barack Obama, opted to avoid a no-fly zone and avoid striking the Syrian military;[x] President Trump now faces the same obstacles but with a new twist.
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[i] Russian Ministry of Defense, ” Statement of the Russian Defence Ministry spokesman on the missile strike carried out by the US Navy against the Shayrat Air Base in Syria,” April 7, 2017. http://eng.mil.ru/en/news_page/country/more.htm?id=12117678@egNews
[ii] Fox News, “About 20 Syrian jets destroyed in missile strike, defense officials say,” April 7, 2017. http://www.foxnews.com/world/2017/04/07/about-20-syrian-jets-destroyed-in-airstrike-defense-officials-say.html
[iii] The New York Times, ” Transcript and Video: Trump Speaks About Strikes in Syria,” April 6, 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/06/world/middleeast/transcript-video-trump-airstrikes-syria.html
[iv] Sputnik International, ” Russia Suspends Memorandum With US on Flight Safety in Syria – Foreign Ministry,” April 7, 2017. https://sputniknews.com/politics/201704071052391256-russia-us-syria-flight-safety/
[vii] Sputnik International, “Russia’s Air, Naval Facilities in Syria Reliably Secured by Missile Systems,” April 7, 2017. https://sputniknews.com/military/201704071052407770-russia-air-defense-syria/
[viii] Lizzie Dearden, ” Syria attack: US ‘deliberately avoided bombing sarin stockpile at Assad airbase’ during Trump air strikes,” April 7, 2017. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/syria-attack-us-trump-air-strikes-bombs-avoided-sarin-stockpile-airbase-chemical-weapons-idlib-a7672126.html
[ix] Reuters, ” Trump says he will order ‘safe zones’ for Syria,” January 25, 2017. http://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-trump-syria-safezones-idUSKBN1592O8
[x] A series of U.S. airstrikes in Deir ez-Zor that hit the Syrian Army, killing 62, notwithstanding; the Obama Administration called these strikes accidental.
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