On Friday night, President Donald Trump took to television to announce an offensive being carried about by military assets from the United States, UK, and France, aiming to significantly hinder Syrian President Bashar al Assad’s chemical weapons capabilities. The offensive, which included weapons launches from multiple air and naval platforms, was a direct response to accusations of a chemical weapon attack on civilians last week by Assad’s Russian-backed regime.
The purpose of our actions tonight is to establish a strong deterrent against the production, spread and use of chemical weapons,” Trump said.
Hours later, Defense Secretary James Mattis and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff attended a Pentagon briefing to provide details into the launch of the offensive, while remaining tight lipped about its result.
Together we have sent a clear message to Assad and his murderous lieutenants that they should not perpetrate another chemical weapons attack for which they will be held accountable.” Mattis said in the briefing.
The Defense Secretary went on to call the offensive a “one off shot,” saying, “right now we have no additional attacks planned.”
Though when prodded about whether or not the offensive would continue, he made it clear that it would if there were any subsequent chemical weapon attacks carried out by Assad’s regime.
Clearly, the Assad regime did not get the message last year,” he said.
The Defense Officials explained that the offensive was aimed at three specific targets: a chemical weapons research facility, a storage facility, and a facility that housed both chemical weapon production equipment and a command element. These targets were chosen specifically, according to Dunford, to limit civilian and foreign casualties. It can be assumed that the foreign casualties the United States hoped to avoid were likely Russian military forces.
The Russian military likely was not in the vicinity of the attacked locations however, as Dunford acknowledged that the United States provided flight plan data regarding the offensive to Russian forces via the Syrian deconfliction line. Although Dunford stressed the regularity of communications via this line, the type of offensive U.S. officials notified the Russian military of was undoubtedly out of the ordinary when compared to ongoing anti-ISIS operations. When coupled with President Trump’s warning that “missiles are coming” via Twitter only days earlier, it can be assumed that Russian forces, and likely as a result, Syrian forces, were aware of the target locations before the missiles actually arrived.
The United States launched tomahawk cruise missiles from nearby Naval assets, as well as precision missiles from the supersonic, long range Lancer B-1B bombers. Reports suggest the French used Mirage multirole fighters in the offensive, though the French government has not yet issues a statement to confirm. The UK RAF contributed four Royal Air Force Tornado GR4s that launched Storm Shadow missiles.
According to a statement from the UK Ministry of Defense, the RAF fighters were targeting “a military facility – a former missile base – some fifteen miles west of Homs, where the regime is assessed to keep chemical weapon precursors stockpiled in breach of Syria’s obligations under the Chemical Weapons Convention.”
Very careful scientific analysis was applied to determine where best to target the Storm Shadows to maximise [sic] the destruction of the stockpiled chemicals and to minimise [sic] any risks of contamination to the surrounding area. The facility which was struck is located some distance from any known concentrations of civilian habitation, reducing yet further any such risk,” the statement read.
Dunford did confirm that Syrian anti-air weapons platforms were engaged, though there has yet to be word on whether or not Russian S-300 or S-400 systems were involved in the ballistic missile defense initiative. It would seem that French, UK, and U.S. aircraft launched their ordinance from outside the range of Syrian air defenses, so any intercepts would have involved missiles, rather than U.S. allied aircraft.
Syria has reported intercepting and destroying 13 missiles, though it seems likely that, even if true, that offered little reprieve from the barrage of ballistic munitions levied by the three nations. Last April, the United States launched 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at a single Syrian airstrip alone. Neither Mattis, nor Dunford, were willing to discuss Syrian or Russian resistance to the strikes.
Russia’s U.S. Embassy released a statement late Friday evening suggesting, once again, that last week’s chemical weapon attack was staged as a part of an international anti-Russian conspiracy. They began planting the seeds of this conspiracy in the media weeks ago, suggesting that it’s possible that they were aware of Assad’s plans to use chemical weapons. Thus far, Russia has provided no legitimate evidence to support their claims of conspiracy, despite it gaining traction on social media.
The worst apprehensions have come true,” Russian ambassador to the U.S., Anatoly Antonov, was quoted as saying on the Embassy’s Twitter account. “A pre-designed scenario is being implemented. Again, we are being threatened. We warned that such actions will not be left without consequences. All responsibility for them rests with Washington, London and Paris.”
Interestingly, despite claiming the scenario was “pre-designed,” the ambassador went on to suggest his anger was the result of a slight directed at Russian President Vladimir Putin – notably not denying the use of chemical weapons, and instead, claiming the U.S. has them too. In fact, he accused the U.S. of having the most.
Insulting the President of Russia is unacceptable and inadmissible,” he went on. “The U.S. – the possessor of the biggest arsenal of chemical weapons – has no moral right to blame other countries.”
That line of thinking is particularly notable, as tensions between Russia and the UK have been particularly strained recently, as a result of an alleged nerve agent attack carried out in Salisbury, England by Russian operatives.
The Kremlin has not yet released a formal response to the offensive, however, and President Trump addressed both Moscow and Tehran in his Friday evening address.
Feature image courtesy of the Associated Press