On the 14th of April, 2018 the United States, Great Britain and France launched a missile strike against the Syrian Arab Republic. The attack was intended as retaliation for the alleged use of chemical weapons on civilians in the city of Douma by the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad one week earlier. Over a hundred cruise missiles were launched from the East Mediterranean, the Red Sea and the Arab Desert by planes, warships and submarines. They were aimed at several facilities belonging to the Assad regime. This is what we know for sure. After this the propaganda starts…
Many of the aspects surrounding the Syrian Civil War have been obscured by the various narratives propagated by the different sides involved in the conflict, to the point where one is left unable to tell fact from fiction. The general ambiguity of war also contributes to the confusion. In this article I will analyse some of the narratives around the missile strikes in an attempt to ascertain their validity.
Speaking for the Pentagon, lieutenant general Kenneth McKenzie Jr. stated that the missile strike by the US, UK and France was aimed at 3 distinct Syrian military facilities which were fundamental to Assad’s chemical weapons program. These were the Barzah scientific research centre in Damascus, the Him Shinshar military installation in Homs and the Him Shinshar chemical weapons complex bunker (also in Homs). He went on to say that: “Initial indications are that we accomplished our military objectives without material interference from Syria… none of our aircraft or missiles involved in the operation were successfully engaged by Syrian air.”
The account of colonel general Sergei Rudskoy speaking for the Russian Ministry of Defence is the exact opposite of that of McKenzie. According to the former, 71 out of 103 missiles launched by the US, UK and France were successfully intercepted by Syrian anti-air defence. The missiles were also not aimed at just the three aforementioned facilities (which were not of any strategic importance) but also at a dozen targets around Syria including military airfields. Let us analyse the evidence.
Firstly, cruise missiles are not easy to shoot down. They fly at a low altitude and don’t have a significant heat signature. This makes them difficult to detect by radar. Most of the Syrian SAMs (surface-to-air missiles) are Soviet designs from the 50s and 60s such as the S – 125 and S – 200 which were not built for the purpose of intercepting cruise missiles. While Syria does possess a small arsenal of more modern Russian-built SAMs such as “Buk” and “Pantsir”, a kill count of 71 out of 103 missiles would still be an impressive result to say the least. It is agreed by all sides that the Russian military stationed in Syria did not take part in the air defence operation, although it is not improbable that the Russians may have provided their allies with input from their more advanced radars.
Secondly, the video material which we have doesn’t really tell us much. For the most part it shows Syrian anti-air missiles being launched into what looks like an empty sky over Damascus. This seems to confirm American accounts, according to which Syrian air defence in a state of helplessness started launching missiles into the air, perhaps for propaganda purposes. There are several videos, however, posted on a Twitter and Facebook profile called “Encyclopedia of Syrian Military”, which do seem to show cruise missiles being destroyed in mid-flight. Then we have the Russian Ministry of Defence, which displayed what it claimed to be missile fragments from the 14th of April attack. Some of them had holes in the surface indicating a successful interception.
Thirdly, the idea that almost all of the missiles aimed at such bases got shot down seems overly convenient to me. And even then I was surprised not to see evidence of damage such as, for example, the photographs of burned hangars and airfield from the 2017 missile strikes.
And finally, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an institution based in the United Kingdom, which has been described as expressing anti-Assad and pro-rebel sentiments states in a report that: “…several intersected sources confirmed to the Syrian Observatory, that the number missiles that were downed, exceeded 65 missiles, of the total number of missiles fired by the Trio Coalition…” This report gives some legitimacy to the Russian-Syrian account of events, yet since the sources are anonymous; it is difficult to estimate their credibility.
Seventy percent is an extremely high kill rate for the Syrian air defence, but Trump’s claim that every missile hit its target also sounds exaggerated in my opinion. However it seems to me that the missile strikes did not damage the Syrian Arab Army’s ability to wage war in any meaningful way. The US bombing of the Shayrat air base in 2017 led to the destruction of military aircraft, surface-to-air missiles, ammo storage facilities and to several casualties among the Syrian armed forces. In contrast, during the missile strikes of 2018, no military equipment was destroyed and no servicemen lost their lives. Chemical weapons were not an essential aspect of Syria’s war effort.
It is possible that Trump is being honest about his motives in regards to the missile strike and that the coalition of the US, UK and France only cared about the chemical weapons threat to civilians and had no interest in sabotaging the military of the Syrian Arab Republic beyond that. On the other hand, I am left wondering whether the air strike was not more of a symbolic gesture for propaganda purposes rather than a practical measure. The United States is not a homogenous political entity; it contains within itself various lobbies and interest groups which oftentimes have diametrically opposed goals. The military industrial complex, the Israel lobby and the “America First” nationalists are three examples of such groups. It could be that by organizing a flashy non-attack, Trump is attempting to appease the various fractions while, at the same time, trying not to escalate the situation in Syria more than necessary. This could explain the sharp, almost schizophrenic changes in US foreign policy with regards to the Middle East since the beginning of the Trump presidency.