US strike on Syria: what we know and what it means

Destruction of Shayrat air base is a blow to Assad regime but is unlikely to topple it

Syria’s president Bashar al-Assad. The US air strike on Friday morning is a significant blow to his regime.  Photograph: Syrian presidency/AP

Syria’s president Bashar al-Assad. The US air strike on Friday morning is a significant blow to his regime. Photograph: Syrian presidency/AP

 

The US strike against the regime of Bashar al-Assad is first and foremost a symbolic act – a show of strength that does not commit Washington to any particular, or irreversible, course of action.

At about 4.40am local time on Friday, the US launched 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles against Shayrat air base from two destroyers in the Mediterranean. The Tomahawk has been a mainstay of US power-projection since the first Gulf war. Each cruise missile has a range of up to 2,500km, making it ideal for firing into contested airspace without endangering US lives. The missiles fly low, to avoid most radar, and travel at subsonic speed.

The size of the strike is comparable to other recent, precision exercises using cruise missiles. In 2014, 47 Tomahawks were fired at a small targeted area in Syria by the US to destroy an al-Qaeda cell dubbed the Khorasan group, which Washington said was plotting attacks on the west.

The Tomahawk’s warhead carries around 450kg of high-explosive charge. In a clustered, dense strike such as Friday morning’s the missiles have little problem destroying even the most hardened facilities.

It may also presage a broader military effort. The Tomahawk is often regarded as the “tip of the spear” in US military operations. Dozens were used by the US in the early stages of the 2011 intervention in Libya. The US destroyers used in the strike on Syria on Friday – the USS Porter and USS Ross – launched cruise missiles against Iraq in 2003 in the opening “shock and awe” phase of the invasion to topple Saddam Hussein.

Assad regime

The option for the US to scale up its operation is still on the table. Ships in the Mediterranean carry many more cruise missiles and other US strike capabilities could be put into action at short notice. The USS George HW Bush, an aircraft carrier, is in the Persian gulf.

While the destruction of Shayrat will be a significant blow to the Assad regime, it is unlikely to topple it. And it is unclear what may have been destroyed and what the Syrian government may have been able to evacuate in time. US officials stress that details of their strike were relayed to Russia in advance, in order to avoid any Russian assets being destroyed. Few doubt that Moscow will have shared that information with its Syrian ally.

Russian aircraft and personnel have used Shayrat frequently in the past. The base in Homs province, north of Damascus and close to the Lebanese border, has come to play an increasingly important role in the Syrian and Russian government’s air campaigns against rebels as the tide of the civil war has turned.

Russian military forces began “reinforcing” the base last year. It has been used as a staging post for Russian attack helicopters.

For the US, the choice of target was as much an act of messaging as military degradation. US intelligence indicated with high probability that Syrian jets were launched from Shayrat to gas the people of Khan Sheikhoun.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017

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