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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 9 December 2018

Military force building up as Trump tweets on Syria strikes

As Donald Trump lobs out conflicting tweets on Syria, a formidable array of firepower is assembling to take on the Al Assad regime

US president Donald Trump listens during a meeting with senior military leadership in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington, D.C. Al Drago / Bloomberg
US president Donald Trump listens during a meeting with senior military leadership in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington, D.C. Al Drago / Bloomberg

In the latest twist from the presidential Twitter feed, Donald Trump warned on Thursday that a strike on Syria may not happen at all.

“Never said when an attack on Syria would take place. Could be very soon or not so soon at all,” the president declared.

Be that as it may, a formidable show of force is assembling to target Bashar Al Assad’s regime, focused on the eastern Mediterranean. The build-up of not only US but also French, British and, possibly, hardware from the region is rolling out, raising questions over how extensive the attack plan will become.

Leading US strategic expert Anthony Cordesman of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies believes America and its allies must orchestrate an offensive beyond the immediate reference point of the Douma attack. That means degrading the regime’s offensive capabilities nationwide.

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“Far too much of the outside speculation on possible US and allied strikes against Syria misses the point,” he wrote. “First, no one should confuse “proportionate” response to the limited effect of one poison gas attack. “Proportionate” should be in response to the overall nature of enemy behaviour and its effect, not a single incident. The US should respond to the overall pattern of Assad’s state terrorism and use of force to kill, injure, and damage the lives of millions of civilians.

“Second, there is no reason that the response should be limited to Assad airfields. It is interesting that no one has yet suggested targeting the areas occupied by the extended Assad family and his closest supporters, the Presidential palace in Damascus, or the Assad’s elite internal security and guard forces. Assad is the real issue here, along with Russian and Iranian complicity. Hitting airbases or tactical facilities will always be an expendable loss to him (and them).”

Russian air base and warships map
Russian air base and warships map

Could the current build-up suggest this wider planning is underway?

Washington already has the USS Donald Cook and the USS Porter, Arleigh Burke-class Navy destroyers in the Mediterranean. The USS Harry S Truman carrier strike group has left the eastern coast of the US and is expected to enter the theatre within days. The Donald Cook is equipped with 90 Tomahawk cruise missiles and The Aquitane, a French naval frigate is also in the region, boasts 32 cruise-class missiles. At least one Ohio-class submarine with 158 cruise missiles is also in the area. The British can offer the fire power of an Austute-class submarine, which has been already ordered to approach Syria. These carry 38 Tomahawk IVs cruise missiles.

Add to that strike potential of B2 Stealth Bombers, F-22 Raptors based in the region and Britain’s Tornado bombers based on Cyprus.

The most obvious potential target is Dumayr military airport northeast of Damascus, from where regime aircraft used in Saturday's attack is thought to have been launched. Russia controls two air bases on the Syrian coast, Tartus and Hmeimim, protected by S-300 and S-400 air missile defence systems.

The Russian defence systems have a fearsome reputation and shot down an Israeli F16 over Syrian airspace in February. But the systems are less effective against low-flying "smart" missiles.

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There is a fierce debate among experts about the value of a missile bombardment in the long-run. Justin Bronk of the Royal United Services Institute (Rusi) warns that any other option would involve an intensive campaign to suppress the air defences, which runs the risk of targeting Russian personnel and Kremlin retaliation.

“While cruise missiles allow the US and to a lesser extent France and the UK to attack regime targets in Syria without risking the safety of aircrew and without having to directly suppress the Syrian and Russian air defence network, there are serious limitations to what can be achieved beyond symbolic retaliation,” he believes. “The US Navy launched 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles from destroyers in the eastern Mediterranean, targeting Shayrat air base, its aircraft, ammunition supply bunkers, air defence systems and radar systems.

“The [Shayrat] strike largely depleted the magazines of three US Navy warships in the Mediterranean and even the US does not have endless supplies of such weapons available in theatre at short notice.”

The US television station NBC News reported Russia could now use GPS jammers to limit the capabilities of US drones and other surveilance assets operating over Syria, hampering the allies abilities to carry out surgical strikes.

"The US has to be very careful not to accidentally strike Russian targets or kill Russian advisers," said Ben Connable, a senior political scientist at the Rand Corporation. "That significantly limits the number of options available to the United States, because the Russians are embedded in many cases with the Syrians."

Michael Pregent, a fellow of the Hudson Institute, said delays had already enabled Damascus to move its weaponry out of harms way. "Assad has moved his aircraft to Russian airbases, a strike at this point is a meaningless face saving gesture and a win for Iran, Russia, and Assad," he said.