Despite the constant cable news coverage about how a new Trump Doctrine is in effect in the Middle East, alongside Tomahawk cruise missile lifting off from destroyers on the back of plumes of smoke and flame, there is little strategic benefit for the West in this retaliatory strike either to stop Assad or more importantly to weaken Islamic State.
The Khan Shaykhun sarin attack on the 4th of April resulted in at least 74 people deal while injuring over 500 but this is hardly the first use of chemical weapons in the conflict nor is it the most deadly attack. A previous attack during Obama’s presidency killed over 700 but with an unco-operative congress and a president that obeyed the conventions of the use of American military force with congressional approval, rightly or wrongly, there were no consequences for Assad.
There were significant complications with respect to this strike. Russian forces, who have been in Syria since September 2015 following the almost collapse of the Syrian Army, were warned of the attack and they and their aircraft were evacuated from the base. Although there were images of destroyed older Syrian Sukhoi-22s, there are reports that the Russians also warned the Syrian forces who succeeded in evacuating some of their aircraft as well.
Minimal damage was caused to the base itself and its supporting infrastructure. Flight operations were up and running again within 24 hours and this speaks to the ineffectiveness of the weapons used. Tomahawks are precision weapons that are designed to take out three dimension structures, (buildings basically). We all remember watching footage from the nose of these missiles as they flew through windows in Iraq years ago. What they are NOT good for is destroying hardened aircraft shelters where there is open spaces each end for the overpressure to escape and equally, where there is no soft window to fly through before detonation which explains why each shelter was attacked twice.
Equally, Tomahawk cruise missiles are almost completely ineffective against two dimensional structures such as runways, taxiways and aircraft aprons. They do not have the kinetic force of a gravity dropped bomb nor the penetrative ability of the larger bunker buster weapons that can crumple an area the size of a football field and really complicate repairs. It’s these reasons why the Syrian Air Force was back operating from this airfield within a day after filling in what amounted to a number of car sized craters. Tomahawks do not scatter little bomblets around the field to complicate repair efforts nor do they have timed secondary effects designed to kill expensive to train engineers brought in for reconstruction. As such, it was simply a case of fill the hole, stamp it down, lay some tarmac, roll it and get those planes in the air again.
This is not to deny the psychological effect of the strike however. There is little doubt that Assad now knows that a cruise missile flying through his bedroom window is potentially the last thing he will see in this world however the Russian presence within his military infrastructure complicates even that potential action. Syria has been a Russian ally for decades and the relationship was previously seen as a counterweight for American support of Israel and Turkey as well as a useful export market for Soviet weaponry. With the breakup of the USSR and rise of Putin, the Russian Federation has been looking to expand its area of influence that it once enjoyed. Alongside this has been the constant search for warm water ports, particularly in the Mediterranean where its access was limited and strategic options in short supply for its Black Sea fleet that had to transit the Turkish Dardanelles.
The Russian support for the Assad regime as well as its presence at the airfield in Latakia and the port of Tartus finally satisfies Russia’ need for a permanent presence in the waters of the Mediterranean. Equally, recent statements from Russia that it intends to sell Syria its most sophisticated air defence system (S-400 SAM) in its inventory is especially worrying news. This system was initially deployed to Syria in limited numbers following the Turkish shoot down of a Russian aircraft that breached Turkish airspace and was limited to providing defence for Russian assets in the west of the country and remained under Russian control. So why would more of these create any further issues since their range of 400km puts a most of Syria under its umbrella.
Well two important agreements were put in place when Russian forces entered Syria. The first of these was a deconfliction hotline set up between US Central Command in Iraq (co-ordinating authority for coalition airstrikes in to Syria) and Russian Syrian forces command in Tartus. Since the missile strike, (according to news sources) this hotline has been dead and NO co-ordination or deconfliction efforts have taken place between Russia and the USA since that time. Although the likelihood or Russian forces firing on Western aircraft is improbable, Syrian forces would feel no such compunction.
Which brings us to our second agreement. Since the USA expanded its air attacks on Islamic State from Northern Iraq into Syria as well as its ground forces working with Kurdish forces to negate the Turkish invasion of last year, Syrian forces were allowing American aircraft to fly through its airspace unhindered, under the proviso that no Syrian forces were attacked. It’s complicated but worth following. US forces could attack ISIS but not Syrian forces. Syrian forces could attack Syrian rebels (both US backed rebels and Al Qaeda backed factions) as well as ISIS (but did not bother since the Americans were sorting them out), Russia could attack all of the above but again did not bother with ISIS too much. That is why the US backed rebels have no air support from America and limited smalls arms. There’s that word again: deconfliction. US aircraft could go anywhere in Syria to attack ISIS but try and provide close air support to Syrian rebels and you will find a Russian aircraft circling or more likely Syrian helicopters lobbying incredibly destructive barrel bombs over the side. Suffice to say, the agreement that allowed US aircraft such unfettered access to Syria has now ended. An oppositional Syrian air force supplied with the most lethal air defence system in the world and potentially top of the line Russian aircraft in the future, backed up by the Russian air force itself and its veto power at the UN, has just made the Trump goal of destroying ISIS a whole lot harder. I said in a previous post that the only way we would rid ourselves of ISIS was with ground action backed by air support. Both of those just became near to impossible.
But at least Trump got an opportunity to look tough, right?