The Western air strikes in Syria that took place after days of accusations and recriminations with Russia were, in the end, relatively limited in scale, focusing on sites linked to chemical weapons and carefully attempting to avoid Russian and Iranian casualties.
Missiles were fired along with sorties by aeroplanes – including four RAF Tornados and four French Rafales and Mirages – in a mission lasting 68 minutes aimed at air bases, command-and-control centres and storage facilities. But crucially, despite the Twitter threat from Donald Trump about dealing with “gas killing animal” Bashar al-Assad, there was no targeting of the Syrian president or his coterie.
After the raids, Mr Trump declared that the US and its allies had “marshalled their righteous power against barbarism and brutality”. But the US defence secretary James Mattis was quick to stress that the “one-off” operation was not aimed at Syria’s political leadership, but solely on military installations.
This is a reassurance to the Russians and the Iranians that the West was not seeking regime change. What took place was in contrast to the beginning of the 2003 Iraq invasion, in which “shock and awe” had started with an attempt to assassinate Saddam Hussein by bombing one of his palaces.
Moscow was not warned specifically about the mission and there was no coordination before they took place, said the Pentagon. But the “deconfliction line” that has been put in place to avoid clashes between Russian and Western jets was in use and, according to Washington and Moscow, functioned effectively.
In any event the element of surprise in the operation had been lost once Mr Trump tweeted “the missiles are coming”. Syrian forces and militia have been busy since then, evacuating bases and emptying them of valuable equipment with the more advanced warplanes moved to the Russian base in Latakia. The Russian military said that preliminary reports show that there had been no military or civilian casualties from the raid.
The Syrian regime claimed that 12 missiles have been successfully intercepted. But the formidable Russian air defences appear not to have been used and it is likely that the Americans and the French, who had been liaising with the Moscow, had obtained agreement that they would not be. It is highly unlikely that manned aircraft, susceptible to being shot down by the Russians, would have been deployed had that not been the case.
In Moscow, Vladimir Putin condemned the attack as an “act of aggression” and called for an urgent meeting of the United Nations. The Russian ambassador to the US, Anatoly Antonov, said they “would not be left without consequences”. The Syrian regime charged that there had been “a fragrant violation of international law”. Also, Iran’s president Hassan Rouhani charged “US attacks in the Middle East have no effect other than annihilation and devastation”. But in reality Damascus, Moscow and Tehran would not be too concerned about what has unfurled under the circumstances.
The overnight strikes were larger in scale than the ones carried out by the US against a Syrian air base – also in response to a chemical attack – in April last year. On that occasion 58 Tomahawk missiles were fired, destroying a dozen jets. It did not significantly damage the Assad regime’s military capabilities or its ability to carry out further chemical attacks.
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On this occasion the missile count had gone up to around 100, with a scientific research facility in Damascus, an alleged chemical weapons storage facility, a storage site near Homs and a command post in the same area being hit. The situation on the ground is unlikely to change by much, even if all these places have been destroyed, especially if valuable weaponry and personnel have been moved thanks to Mr Trump.
Meanwhile, inspectors from the Organisation for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) have arrived in Douma to ascertain whether a chemical attack had taken place, as the West claims, or that it was all a hoax, which is the position of the Russians and the Syrian regime.