Syria attacks: What the US and allies targeted and what comes next

Impact of the strikes could have been limited by the amount of time Syria had to prepare

A Syrian soldier films the damage to the Syrian Scientific Research Centre which was attacked by US., British and French military strikes in Barzeh, near Damascus, Syria. Photograph: Hassan Ammar/AFP

After six days of deliberations and bellicose rhetoric, the air strikes against Syria were largely a symbolic act by the US, the UK and France, with the stated aim of dismantling Bashar al-Assad's chemical weapons capabilities but also to deter him from using them again.

While the US defence secretary Jim Mattis said it was a "heavy strike", which involved the firing of 105 long-range missiles, he also said it was a "one-time shot" leaving some military analysts to question whether the move was too limited to have a lasting effect on the Assad regime.

What were the targets?

The US said allies targeted fundamental components of Syria’s chemical weapons infrastructure.

Aerial images of the sites published by the Pentagon showed the first target was a scientific research centre located at Barzeh in the greater Damascus area, which the US said was used for the development, productions and testing of chemical and biological weapons. The second was a chemical weapons storage facility at Him Shinshar west of the city of Homs which the US said was the primary location for the Syrian manufacture of the nerve agent sarin. The third was a chemical weapons bunker facility close to the second target.


This tallied with a statement from the UK's defence ministry which said Royal Air Force Tornado GR4s were deployed to attack a former missile base 24km west of Homs, where the Assad regime was assessed to have stockpiled chemical weapons precursors. Some media reports said Syrian air bases, including the Mezzeh military air base were targeted, but these could not be confirmed.

How did the US and its allies strike?

Lt Gen Kenneth McKenzie, director of the US joint staff, said 105 missiles were fired from US, French and British naval and air platforms in the Red Sea, northern Gulf and the Mediterranean. The attack took place at 4am local time.

Two US warships, a submarine and two B-1 bombers all fired missiles. The bombers, which fired joint air-to surface stand-off missiles, were accompanied by fighter jets and electronic jammers. The US fired 56 Tomahawk missiles and 19 joint air-to-surface missiles at the first target. All three allies attacked the chemical weapons storage facility with a total of 22 weapons, with US Tomahawks, British Storm Shadow and French missiles. The US used seven scout missiles against the chemical weapons bunker.

The US said it assessed Syria launched more than 40 surface-to-air missiles but 'most of them occurred after the last impact of our strike was over'

The UK said it fired Storm Shadow missiles from its four Tornados which flew from the RAF's air base at Akrotiri, Cyprus. The Storm Shadow has a range of about 500km, meaning the jets would have been able to remain beyond the range of Syrian and Russian air defences.

The French frigate Aquitaine and Rafale jets flying from airfields in France fired 12 cruise missiles.

How successful were the attacks?

The US described the strikes as “precise, overwhelming, and effective”, saying initial reports showed the operation accomplished objectives but was still subject to detailed damage assessment. Lieut Gen Kenneth McKenzie, director of the Joint Staff, said the allies attacked targets in such a manner as to “minimise” the effects of spreading chemical or nerve agents that the US assessed were at the target.

“Initial assessments are that this target was destroyed,” said Lt Gen McKenzie of the first target. “This will set the Syrian chemical weapons programme back for years.” He said the third target was “successfully hit” but did not say it was destroyed. “There is some left, but we have dealt a severe blow.”

The Russian defence ministry claimed 71 of the 103 missiles fired were shot down by Syrian air defence systems, a claim denied by the US.

Military analysts said this was unlikely given the “obsolescent” state of Syria’s air defence equipment and the fact the more sophisticated Russian S400 systems, stationed at its air base in Latakia province were not deployed.

“To the best of our knowledge, no Syria weapon had any effect on anything we did,” said Lt Gen McKenzie, adding the attacks had overwhelmed Syrian air defences, that no aircraft or missiles were successfully engaged and that the US was confident all missiles reached their targets.

He said the US did not warn Russia before the strikes but that it did communicate through the "deconfliction" line to prevent any clashes in airspace. He said the US had "no indication" that Russian air defence system weapons were employed – although he did not say they had not been turned on.

Doug Barrie, at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said that while it was possible some of the Tomahawks will have been shot down or failed, the “chances of the Syrian defences taking them all out are very slim”.

Following the suspected gas attack on Douma last Saturday, the US, UK and France wanted to send a message to Syria – but also Russia

The US said it assessed Syria launched more than 40 surface-to-air missiles but “most of them occurred after the last impact of our strike was over”.

However, the impact of the strikes could have been limited by the amount of time the US and its allies deliberated before launching the operation, giving Syria time to move important military assets and equipment.

“The facilities hit are likely to have had the important equipment and personnel moved over the past few days in anticipation of strikes so assuming no further attacks I think we can safely file this one under “symbolic”, said Justin Bronk, an analyst at RUSI.

What is the strategy?

The US and its allies say the aim of the strikes was to damage the Assad regime’s chemical weapons production and development facilities.

Following the suspected gas attack on Douma last Saturday, the US, UK and France wanted to send a message to Syria – but also Russia, which backs the Assad regime – that the use of chemical weapons would not be tolerated.

The question was whether this was, as Mattis stated, a one-off strike, or potentially part of a more sustained programme of attacks, as suggested by Donald Trump. "Mission Accomplished!" he tweeted on Saturday, claiming allies had conducted a perfectly executed strike and thanking France and the UK for its "wisdom and the power of their military".

All three members of the coalition agreed the ball was now in Assad’s court and that should he choose to use chemical weapons on his own people again then there could be further strikes.

Bassma Kodmani, an opposition negotiator at the UN-backed Geneva peace talks on Syria said the action was unlikely on its own to change the course of the conflict or the stuttering international efforts to end it.

“The experience of last year indicated that a military strike per se did not give any leverage to the US. It took six to eight weeks before Assad went back to doing exactly what he wanted, which is using prohibited chemical agents.

“So the lesson from that is there needs to be continued pressure for a ceasefire as part of a coherent US strategy. It sounds so obvious to say that – but it seems like there is no strategy. Military action has its value as a shock to the regime and Russia, but the US has to formulate its objectives in Syria. At the moment I don’t find it easy to say what its objectives are.”

– Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018