US-led Strike Against the Syrian Regime
Air Cdre RAF (Retd.) Andrew Lambert
Director, ERPIC Regional Security Program
20th April 2018
On the night of Friday/Saturday 13/14th April, fighters and bombers from the USA, France and Great Britain conducted a three-pronged strike on “the heart of the Syrian chemical weapons programme”. Very early on the Saturday morning, a total of 76 US cruise missiles, fired from B-1B bombers and naval ships, smashed into Barzeh chemical weapons research and development facilites. Meanwhile, the UK and France attacked chemical facilities near Homs. French air and naval units fired a total of 12 missiles, while 4 RAF Tornados, each fired 2 Storm Shadow bunker-busting stand-off missiles.
This attack was in response to an alleged chemical attack a week earlier on the suburban town of Douma, just east of Damascus – a town held by rebel forces but still occupied by a considerable civilian population. At least 70 people were killed and hundreds more injured. The attack provoked widespread abhorrence in the West, heightened by the sight on TV and social media of children gasping for breath.
The suffering of the victims was consistent with the chlorine gas the regime often uses — but this time mixed with a nerve agent. Officers of the UN Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons have now, on Monday 23rd April, rather belatedly, been given access to the area where the chemical attack took place, and their results are expected – probably by the end of May. Given the fact that barrel bombs were seen to be dropped in the area, and the widespread effects of the chemicals, there is little doubt that a chemical attack took place.
But the question for the world jury is – who was guilty? The Russians have steadfastly maintained a) that no chemicals were used, citing the fact that Russian ground troops were in nearby areas shortly afterwards and found no ill-effects, and b) that it would make no sense for Assad to use chemical weapons when he is so close to total victory.
A previous large chemical attack, just over a year ago at Khan Sheikhoun met with the response from the newly inaugurated President Trump of 59 Tomahawk missiles fired at the Syrian airbase from where the attack took place. That clearly failed to deter any subsequent use.
Fighting in built-up areas is fearsomely expensive, both in weapons and casualties, and the ground once taken is often so destroyed that one is left with little more than a wasteland. Chemicals have the advantage that they drift in and around buildings causing casualties not directly in the line of fire and over a longer period, and hence deterring fighters and civilians alike from being in an area likely to be targeted.
Part of the point of using chemical weapons this time, it is suggested, is perhaps to soften up global opinion for using them again in the rebels’ last stronghold, Idlib.
So, was this a legal act?
First, the use of chemicals. Chemical weapons are already outlawed by the Chemical Weapons Convention which entered into force in 1997. And following the first use of chemicals in the Syrian civil war, Presidents Obama and Putin agreed that Russia would supervise the total removal of all chemical weapons from Syria. That clearly has not taken place.
And for the Western air forces?
Under Article 51 of the UN Charter, “Nothing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defence if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations, until the Security Council has taken measures necessary to maintain international peace and security.
Increasingly, however, the use of force in support of collective self defence for humanitarian operations has now increasingly been established by precedent. So you can say that it was a legal action, as far as the West was concerned.
Fortunately, despite the trumpetings from Washington, the actual targets chosen showed considerable restraint, confining weapon impacts to military areas, and the Barzeh scientific laboratories where weaponised gas was capable of being manufactured. Although this provoked considerable outpouring of anguish, nevertheless, Russia did not fire on Western aircraft, nor did it carry out any subsequent military response, although the media widely predicted a cyber attack. However, though no direct attack was forthcoming, the Russians clearly worked hard at winning the war of words. According to the Pentagon, the number of Russian bots active on social media increased by 2,000% in the wake of the Syrian strikes, with the intention of undermining support for the attack, and the West’s intentions for Syria.
So, was this military act effective? And the answer to this is that, although executed almost perfectly by the military, this was, in reality a political act, designed far less actually to deny Assad the physical availability of chemical weapons, rather more to coerce or deter, and gain political advantage.
Nevertheless, yet again this operation underscored the utility of Air Power as both a political weapon of choice and as an effective weapon of war. All designated targets were attacked with precision.
Of course, Syria claimed that it had intercepted 71% of all weapons en route to their targets, but this farcical figure has yet to be substantiated, and it is sure that the TV downlink of each of the RAF’s 8 Stormshadow missiles showed them right on target.
According to Lieutenant General Kenneth McKenzie, Syrian air defences fired 40 intercepting surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) but failed to hit any of their targets. He said most were fired after the last incoming missile had already struck its target.
One other aspect often overlooked is that all 40 SAMs still had to come down somewhere, and analysts need to be somewhat sceptical from any random reports of widespread collateral damage.
For President Assad, the attack was most likely a lot less severe than he feared or expected. Indeed, journalists reported Syrian civilians coming out of their houses to watch the missiles flying past. Somewhat different to WWII! On the other hand, a rebel forces’ spokesman expressed disappointment, “They did not target the air bases that the regime uses to attack civilians, children, women, infrastructure, hospitals.”
So, what then are the lessons and implications for the future?
And this is where staring into the crystal ball is sure to make any commentator seem naïve if not foolish.
Is this attack, and the one a year earlier, going to be sufficient to deter Mr Assad from digging into his stockpiles when he needs to clear out Idlib?
It is clear that both Presidents Macron and Trump were certain that they wanted to send a direct message to those that contemplate using weapons of mass destruction. Such actions will not be tolerated, and any future use will unquestionably cross the proverbial Red Line and will invite punishment. Of course, sadly, this also opens the door for deniability bluff and counter bluff as each side attempts to shift blame onto the other. Or worse, sets up a deniable chemical attack in the hope the other side will be blamed.
For Mr Trump, this resolute operation has played well – as it was meant to do – and has demonstrated to anyone else in the world (Little Rocket Man, perhaps? And even the theocracy in Teheran?) that Washington is not afraid to use its military if the situation needs it. No doubt the Kurds will be pleased too that Mr Trump has not entirely forgotten them, and even Mr Erdogan may just realise that the free hand he thinks he has in and around Affrin is not entirely free. Possibly, as well, it demonstrates that wiser councils in Washington still prevail and the mixed messages that were coming out of the Presidential Twitter feed, have been supplanted by restrained military action, designed clearly to be non-escalatory.
Whether this means there is anything of a Middle Eastern strategy emerging from Washington is still in doubt, and maybe this will have to wait till Messrs Pompeo and Bolton have time to establish a direction for Presidential policy. Israel and Saudi Arabia are certainly already dismayed by the increase in Iran’s influence in Syria, and the mixed messages from Washington don’t help, especially over the Iran nuclear deal.
But Mrs May, too, can be somewhat pleased. The poisoning of the Skripals on the streets of Salisbury had drawn the world’s attention to the horrific nature of chemical warfare and this operation was in part a clear response to that use of chemicals. Although UK involvement was probably as much in the nature of an operation to support her allies, it was militarily successful and thankfully precise.
Politically, however, there was considerable political angst in the UK in the days leading up. Despite Jeremy Corbyn’s pacifist demands that all military action should always be considered first by Parliament, both the Media and most MPs have realised that time-critical decisions just cannot be taken after lengthy debate in Parliament. Such a move would give succour to our adversary, destroy any element of surprise, and cause the lives of far more British servicemen to be put at risk.
Of course, it is right when great strategic issues confront the British people that Parliament should be involved, but when a decision to mount a particular operation depends so much on intelligence, and shared intelligence at that, it cannot be right for that intelligence to be flaunted across the floor of the House and analysed by the inexperienced. In practice, this is one of the cardinal reasons for retention of the Royal Prerogative, which gives the Prime Minister the authority to order an attack, with the backing of the Cabinet, and possibly with the acquiescence of security-cleared members of the Queen’s Privy Council.
Needless to say, however, the PM is still nevertheless accountable to Parliament, and if it all goes wrong, and her strategy is seen to be at fault, then she can subsequently be dismissed in a vote of no confidence.
What we are probably seeing in Syria, as far as the West is concerned is more like an attempt to put a stake in the ground. The West has to remain interested in the outcome in Syria, and its implications for Israel, Lebanon and the Gulf as a whole. Although pro tem it seems as if the Russian backed Assad regime will remain, the West was rightly keen to indicate its continuing vital interests in the region, despite the USA becoming virtually self-sufficient in oil.
As far as Russia is concerned, her intervention in Syria has been seen as a great success. Russia has established herself as a great power once again, one that all other powers have to recognise. The Alawite Syrian Regime, Hezbollah, Iran, and increasingly Iraq’s Shiite regime are all now in the Russian camp, and a potent counter to Saudi’s pro-West stance of Prince Mohammed bin-Salman.
And if Mr Putin succeeds in driving an even greater wedge between NATO Turkey and the rest of NATO, then he can be very pleased that NATO itself will have been weakened, with further implications for the Baltic region and possibly Ukraine and Israel.
Mr Putin’s actions will be seen both inside Russia and across the Middle East as strong. He did not allow the West to walk all over the Assad regime and begin targeting for regime change; instead, the punishment was forced to be very constrained. Given the widespread Russian air defences, the US had to consult Russia before the bombing and in doing so, de facto, acknowledged the primus inter pares position of Russia in the Middle East. Again, this degree of necessary cooperation demonstrates the decline of US power in the region and emphasises the position of the Astana Group of Russia, Turkey and Iran in determining the future, not just of Syria, but of many smaller powers as well.
At a more tactical level, I would have thought too, that, seeing again the effectiveness of Air Power, Mr Putin would be encouraged to push President Assad to bring this conflict to a speedy conclusion over this summer. This will probably require considerable effort on the ground as well as in the air, and the need for speed will probably reduce the constraints on Russian air operations so that, although we may see less use of poison gas, we can expect far more civilian casualties from indiscriminate air attack, especially in difficult to reach areas, out of sight of journalists.
So, what can we say in summation?
Well, as the Financial Times put it so well, “Firing missiles is no substitute for a strategy. Nor is pulling out US troops as Mr Trump apparently intended shortly before Douma was attacked.” Last weekend’s bombing will do little to change the trajectory of the war in Syria.
Unless the US and its allies start to be serious about events in the region and begin to participate not just with the occasional military strike, but diplomatically and economically as well, they will have given the match to Russia with consequences not only for Syria, but for NATO, Israel, oil supplies and Saudi Arabia.
We may have just won a game but the West is already two sets down. There is much to play for.