Limited strikes on chemical weapons facilities in Syria

Limited strikes on chemical weapons facilities in Syria
USS Ross (DDG-71) launches a Tomahawk missile at Syria's Shayrat Air Base from the Med, 7 Apr 2017. (Image: USN, PO3 Robert S. Price)

[In the interest of getting this posted, I’m putting it up without a map.  I know.  Apocalypse shortly.  Saturday will be a good day for map-making. – J.E.]

This will be in the nature of an on-the-fly update.  As noted about two hours ago, the president announced strikes tonight on targets in Syria, using the forces of the U.S., UK, and France.  The strikes have ended for now, and the Pentagon has given its brief on the event.

The video of Trump’s announcement is embedded below.

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A brief operational summary:  General Dunford (Chairman, Joint Chiefs) listed three target installations, which are laid out in this tweet:

The Scientific Studies and Research Center (SSRC) has been in operation since the early 1970s and has been associated with special weapons programs throughout that time.  The main SSRC facility is on Mount Qasioun in the northwest quarter of Damascus, overlooking the city.  It’s literally up the mountain, with portions underground.  But a great deal of it is exposed, and a concerted attack on it can disrupt activities there for months or even years.

The other two facilities are of more recent vintage.  Israel is thought to have struck one of them (if they’re the ones it appears they are) on more than one occasion since 2011.

The U.S. government summary report on Assad’s recent use of chemical weapons and the evidence that the series of attacks was indeed mounted by his regime was published on Friday.

I note, however, that there is widespread and credible reporting from Damascus that explosions were observed at or near at least two military airfields, Dumayr (northeast of Damascus) and Mezzeh (southwest of Damascus).  These airfields are basically on the outskirts of Damascus, which is a sprawling metropolis.

The explosions there probably came from “SEAD” for any manned bombers that were participating in the strikes.  SEAD is suppression of enemy air defense, and in modern strike operations typically involves preemptively taking down, or counterattacking, air defense command posts and surface to air missile batteries when they shoot at the strike aircraft.  Some of the Tomahawks were likely used for this ancillary mission.

Since Secretary Mattis and General Dunford didn’t mention primary targets in these airfield locations, it’s probable that the explosions there were from preemptive and counter-targeting of Syrian air defense assets.

We don’t have any specific accounting of what aircraft were involved.  As mentioned in the initial headline post, Fox’s Jennifer Griffin said USS Monterey (CG-61) and USS Laboon (DDG-58) were involved.  I haven’t been able to verify that.  Follow-on reporting has mentioned the destroyer USS Donald Cook and the French “FREMM” frigate FS Aquitaine (which should have the French SCALP land-attack missile, similar to the Tomahawk, although I can’t immediately verify that).

Numerous sources reported allied aircraft taking off from Crete (and I believe Cyprus, although I can’t confirm that).  Those would be tactical air (Air Force, in this case) strike-fighters, at least from the U.S. and UK and possibly France.  B-1 bombers were also reportedly involved.  They presumably came from Al-Udeid Airbase in Qatar, and would have been able to deploy bunker-busters, if we used any, as well as stand-off CALCMs (similar to Tomahawk) and smaller guided-bomb ordnance.

It’s too early to have a clear idea what ordnance we used, other than Tomahawks and probably 2,000 pound (and possibly 5,000 pound) guided bombs.  We were not targeting heavily populated areas.  The counter-targeting of SAM batteries and other air defense assets would have been done with smaller warheads.

The military may decide more strikes are needed to ensure the worthwhile destruction of Assad’s chemical weapons capability.  There will be a damage assessment done on Saturday, and a re-strike decision after that.  It doesn’t look like we went after Assad’s aircraft as a primary target.  There would have been no reason to withhold that information about targeting if we did.

The Pentagon briefing:

A few comments.  One, there was no reason to expect the Russians to react tactically, and there’s been no evidence that they did.  Dunford said we deconflicted the air space use with them, according to our agreed protocol, but we did not advise them of our specific intentions.  The bottom line would be that the Russians no doubt tracked us the whole time, but stayed out of our way.

This is not a surprise.  Defending Assad’s chemical weapons program is not a red line for Russia.  Moscow has no reason to make Russian forces a target by getting between the U.S. coalition and Assad’s chemweps program.

The perception of reality in Syria has materially changed, however.  For the first time — literally, for the first time, since the civil war began — someone other than the coalition being led from behind by Iran has the initiative.  That someone is the U.S. and our coalition.

I’m not sanguine about what Trump may do with this, but he’s going to have to do something.  He can’t just get the horse galloping and then drop the reins.  I think he knows that.  He’s a seat-of-the-pants tactician, with an obvious feel for situational urgency.  I assume he’ll stay with this, although he’s not going to lay out a detailed strategy.  (Obama never did that either, so it’s hypocritical to caterwaul about it if you didn’t criticize Obama’s strategic silences.  The difference with Obama was that he didn’t have psychotically hostile media trying to depict everything he did or failed to do as the great trigger for the Apocalypse.)

The problem for the media and the public is that our vision and expectations have been so shaped by the last 25 years — the stately-paced build-ups and dances with allies and so forth — that we don’t know what else to look for.  Trump is doing orderly things, but our eyes don’t see them.  That can be an advantage vis-a-vis opponents, but also makes it harder to see justification for Trump’s actions if you’re his countrymen or our lawmakers.

I think he’ll need to be working with Congress in the coming days.  Trump spoke tonight of a concerted effort to put pressure on Assad and his coalition using economic and diplomatic as well as military means.  That tells me the intention is not to simply strike once and run.  It will really be important for key senators to step up and work with Trump — not just posture peevishly about him — to move the “pressure plan” forward.  (Ted Cruz would be ideal for this.)

No matter what Trump does, the media will depict it as chaotic, incompetent, incendiary, and inexcusable.  We’ll have to live with that, but we don’t need to listen to it.

This final note is a very important take-away: the U.S. coalition’s ability to execute the strikes tonight was not necessarily available for the asking at any time.  It came together because it was put together.  Our coalition partners trusted us to have a worthwhile objective: something worth going out on a limb and blowing stuff up for.  That’s why they joined in.

We were able to get into Syrian air space, in a far more tactically prohibitive environment than Obama faced until literally his last 6 months in office, because Trump’s signals of a credible threat cleared the path for us.  Russia, Iran, and Assad all hunkered down over the last several days, pulling in their horns and rendering their forces less operable, precisely because of those signals.

Russia — in spite of her rhetoric — was prepared to stand by and let the strikes happen because the Russians knew Trump wouldn’t overstep the intentions he expressed.  Whatever the Russian may say about him, they know that if he has told the American people this is about chemical weapons facilities, and that’s the limited purpose, he’s not going to sneak off beyond that operational boundary.

Obama didn’t have that reputation or standing with our allies or the Russians, or the Iranians or Assad.  We’ll see what Trump does with it in the days ahead.  This isn’t over.

J.E. Dyer

J.E. Dyer

J.E. Dyer is a retired Naval Intelligence officer who lives in Southern California, blogging as The Optimistic Conservative for domestic tranquility and world peace. Her articles have appeared at Hot Air, Commentary’s Contentions, Patheos, The Daily Caller, The Jewish Press, and The Weekly Standard.


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