Syrian Chase

From the perspective of the Kremlin, Syria has been a great success. Following the surprisingly successful organisation of a transatlantic response to the Russian invasions of Crimea and the Donbas, the Russian intervention in Syria not only managed to prop up the Assad regime and reverse the course of the civil war, it also made sure that the Russian Navy would get a naval base in the Mediterranean. And most importantly: it forced the West to again talk directly with the Kremlin.

This was not only a case of Russia playing a rather mediocre hand very well, but also of several events outside of Putin’s control lining up favourably. These include both Iran and Hezbollah intervening, as well as the Turkish turn-around following the failed coup of 2016. The introduction of Russian long-range air-defence system, including the S-400, into Syria caused further alarm amongst western observers, with some going as far as stating that no assets in theatre beyond the F-22 Raptor “has any ability to operate and survive” inside the 400 km range of the system’s 40N6 missile.

Red: Iskander-M ballistic missile range (700 km). Blue: S-400 with 40N6 SAM-range (400 km). Source: Wikimedia Commons/VictorAnyakin

I have earlier on the blog cautioned against drawing rings on maps and stating that they are any kind of steel domes inside which anything and everything will be shot down, and this is very much the case for the SAM’s at Khmeimim Air Base as well. The latest strikes on targets in western Syria, including those well-within 100 km of Khmeimim AB, showed that coalition aircraft can strike presumably protected targets without issue. And not only that, if one looks closely at the map, the 400 km range extends well beyond Cyprus. The very same Cyprus which was the base of the RAF aircraft participating in the strikes. In other words, British aircraft took off and landed inside the stated range of the system, and all cruise missiles, both ship- and air-launched, penetrated the bubble without seemingly any of them having been intercepted.

The short answer is that Russia, according to Washington, didn’t try. There is said to have be no indication that the S-400 was fired against anything, and most likely this was a political decision. However, it does tell you something.

If Russia had the magical steel dome that some lay out A2/AD to be, why didn’t they at least swat down some of the cruise missiles, even if they decided to leave the aircrafts themselves (or rather, their pilots) alone? At the crucial moment, Russia decided not to try to protect the assets of their ally. Whatever the reason, the result is a razed block in the Syrian capital.

However, while there without doubt are intelligence services around the world plotting the decision as yet another data point, the immediate outcome isn’t necessarily too dramatic. As TD noted, the West will continue to act like Russia didn’t blink, and Russia will continue to claim that they control the skies over (western) Syria.

The problem is that while Russia might be the great power on location in Syria, the other actors, including Assad, Iran, and Hezbollah, all have their own agendas as well. More importantly, it is highly doubtful that any of them would hesitate to jump the Russian ship if they saw more benefits to be gained elsewhere.

Enter Israel, which is likely the western state that has been cooperating most effortlessly with Russia. In part this stems from a pragmatism that is a strong part of Israeli foreign policy, but it should also be noted that current defence minister Lieberman (and a sizeable Israeli minority) is in fact born in the Soviet Union. By most accounts the Israeli-Russian deconfliction agreement is working nicely, with Russia more or less accepting Israeli strikes on targets in Syria.

Israel has on the whole tried to stay out of the Syrian conflict, in no small part likely based on the experiences from the Lebanese civil war. However, a red line has always been drawn at the “transfer of advanced weaponry” from Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon. What exactly constitutes “advanced weapons” is left open, but it is usually taken to include long-range rockets and ballistic missiles, surface-to-air missiles, and anti-ship missiles. The Israeli answer to transfers has been air strikes, often carried out with stand-off weaponry from Lebanese or Israeli airspace.

As the war has been dragging on, the Israeli involvement has deepened at the same time as the Iranian impact on the ground has increased. While Assad constitutes a know quantity, Israel has been extremely wary of the long-term impact of allowing Iran a foothold in the region. And while brig. gen. (res.) Shafir of the Israeli Air Force a decade ago confidently could say that Iran is isolated in the Muslim world, recent developments have opened up avenues of approach for Teheran on a broader scale than has been seen before. The recent downing of an Iranian drone that entered Israeli airspace and the following air raids (including the first downing of an Israeli fast jet in a very long time) has increased the temperature further.

A very worrying detail was the fact that Israeli media claims that the aftermath of the raid left Israeli prime minister Netanyahu with the impression that Russia has no real ability to contain Iran in Syria. The problem here then is that the logical conclusion is that Israel will have to deal with the Iranian presence in Syria alone, and while I doubt that anyone inside the IDF is dusting off the plans for a drive to Damascus just yet, a more comprehensive air campaign aimed at severely crippling the Iranian forces in Syria might be in the cards.

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S-300PMU-2 TEL. Source: Vitaly Kuzmin

While this kind of Israeli-Iranian showdown is bad enough in and by itself, the big kicker is how that would reflect upon Russia. Having two gangs fight it out on what should ostensibly be your backyard does not leave the onlookers with the feeling that you are in control, no matter how often you say so. In addition, if Russia goes through with the idea to supply the S-300PMU-2 to Assad, this opens up further risks of losing face. While the S-300 is one notch below the S-400, the system is vastly superior to anything currently in operation by the Syrians themselves. As such, it would likely be a prime target in any Israeli air campaign, and echoing the aerial battles of 1982, it would likely be destroyed sooner rather than later.

This all would leave Russia in a bad light, and erase much of the gains in prestige and diplomacy that the Syrian intervention has so far given Russia (in certain places, one should add, as others are less impressed by people regularly bombing hospitals and supporting dictators who use chemical weapons). While attempts at predicting Putin’s next moves are notoriously hard, it is safe to say that he has not shown an inclination to count his losses and leave the table. Instead, when the rest of the players believe him to have overplayed his hand, what usually happens seems to be that Putin will press on regardless. And there’s no telling whether his next move would come in Syria, or somewhere else.

 

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Syrian Strikes

“They had three buildings there [Barzah scientific research center] and a parking deck,” McKenzie said.
“Now they don’t.” via USNI.

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French frigate firing off one of the three MdCN cruise missiles that were part of the strike. Source: Marine Nationale

As information about yesterday’s strikes against targets in Syria has been slowly to trickling out throughout the weekend, it is by now possible to piece together a picture of the raid. Perhaps the single most informative piece was the press briefing held by Pentagon.

In short, the following units were involved:

Armée de l’Air

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Two-seater Rafale B launching with twin SCALP EG cruise missiles under the wings. Source: French MoD

5x Dassault Rafale, launching 9 SCALP EG cruise missiles

4x Mirage 2000-5, escort

E-3FR AWACS and KC-135R/C-135F aerial refuelling aircraft

All aircraft operated out of bases in France

Royal Air Force

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Tornado GR.4 sporting two Storm Shadow cruise missiles under the fuselage. Source: British MoD / © Crown copyright 2013 (unmodified news item)

4x Tornado GR.4, launching 8 Storm Shadow cruise missiles

?x Typhoon FGR.4, escort

Operating out of RAF Akrotiri on Cyprus

USAF

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B-1B preparing to launch for the raid from Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar. Source: US AFCENT

2x B-1B, launching 19 AGM-158A JASSM cruise missiles

?x F-16, escort

?x F-15, escort

?x F-22 Raptors, escort

Numerous supporting assets, including RQ-4B Global Hawk UAV’s for intelligence gathering, E-3 AWACS, KC-135 and KC-10 aerial refuelling aircraft, and likely a single E-11B relay aircraft

Bombers operating out of Al Udeid AB in Qatar, fighters from both Al Udeid and European bases

Edit: updated information corrected the JASSM version from -ER to the baseline version which is also in Finnish use, and included the presence of F-22’s as escort.

USMC

VMAQ-2 Transits Souda Bay
No image of the EA-6B from VMAQ-2 which was part of the raid has been released as far as I know. Here is a similar aircraft from the same squadron during a stopover in Crete, Greece, back in 2007. Source: U.S. Navy photo by Mr. Paul Farley via Wikimedia Commons

1x EA-6B Prowler, ECM escort

Operated out of Ahmad al-Jaber Air Base, Kuwait

Marine National

fremm-aquitaine-3-c-marine-nationale
FREMM-class frigate Aquitaine (D650), likely the vessel that fired the MdCN missiles. Source: Marine National

1x FREMM-class frigate, launching 3 MdCN

Operating in the Mediterranean

US Navy

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Ticonderoga-class cruiser USS Monterey (CG-61) launching TLAM missiles from the Red Sea. Source: US Navy via USNI

1x Ticonderoga-class cruiser

1x Arleigh Burke-class destroyer

Operating in the Red Sea, launching a total of 37 TLAM cruise missiles

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USS Higgins (DDG 76) which launched the strikes from the Persian Gulf. Source: US Navy/Photographer’s Mate 2nd Class Frederick McCahan

1x Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, launching 23 TLAM cruise missiles

Operating in the Persian Gulf

USS California at sea during sea trials.
Virgina-class SSN underway. Source: Chris Oxley/U.S. Navy via Wikimedia Commons

1x Virgina-class attack submarine, launching 6 TLAM cruise missiles

Operating in the Mediterranean

Alert readers will note that the total amount given is 105 cruise missiles (36 air-launched, 63 ship-launched, and 6 sub-launched), coming in two above the 103 given by Russian sources. The missiles hit the following targets:

Barzah/Barzeh Scientific Research Center

Situated in the western parts of Damascus, the center was hit by 57 TLAM and 19 JASSM missiles.

Sputnik published a video reportedly shot at the scene, which seems to match the location below. It also matches the description given by the Pentagon, in that three large buildings have been completely destroyed.

Interestingly, the dual weapons used says something about the nature of the target. While the TLAM has a rather standard 1,000 lb (454 kg) class blast/fragmentation warhead (i.e. it explodes and creates shrapnel), the JASSM sports what Lockheed Martin calls a “2,000-pound [908 kg] class weapon with a dual-mode penetrator and blast fragmentation warhead” (i.e. it is made to penetrate hardened structures such as bunker before then exploding and creating shrapnel). Another thing to note is that the number 57 does not correspond to any possible combination of the salvos from individual ships, meaning that at least one vessel targeted two different sites.

Him Shinsar chemical weapons storage facility

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BDA pictures of the Him Shinshar. Source: Pentagon

The bunkers and facilities used for storing chemical weapons were hit by 22 weapons, these being 9 TLAM, 8 Storm Shadow, 2 SCALP EG, and 3 MdCN. This clearly shows the different nature of the target compared to the research center, as the number of missiles is much smaller, but also the fact that 13 out of 20 missiles were bunker-busting Storm Shadow/SCALP EG/MdCN (which are simply different local designations for the same missile, with MdCN being the ship-launched version). The Pentagon briefing described the target as ‘destroyed’, and while it is harder to verify when it comes to underground installations, significant damage is visible in the satellite imagery posted since.

Him Shinshar command facility

The final target was a command facility associated with the Him Shinshar site. This was hit by the last 7 SCALP EG. Pentagon described the facility as having taken ‘damage’, as opposed to the two others which were rated as ‘destroyed’. It is unclear if this is a failure, or simply representative of the different nature of the target. Command facilities might be able to continue to function to some extent even if key buildings are wiped out, which is not the case with a storage facility in which the storage buildings are hit.

In any case, satellite imagery shows what looks like two larger and one smaller hardened building having been targeted and destroyed.

Conclusions

Despite wild claims of the majority of the missiles having been intercepted and the rest having missed, it is clear that the raid was an unequivocal success on the tactical level. The targeted sites have all suffered heavy damage. If the description of the nature of the targets is correct, it is highly possible that the use of sarin has been made harder by the strikes. Obviously, this does not stop the regime from using a whole number of other ghastly weapons and tactics, including barrel bombs, starvation through sieges, and quite possibly industry grade chlorine (which has been featured in numerous attacks in Syria).

Notable is also the fact that several of the weapons and systems used were making their combat debuts. These include the JASSM and MdCN, as well as the Virgina-class SSN. From a Finnish viewpoint, the combat launch of JASSM (albeit not in the exact version used by the Finnish Air Force) was certainly of interest. However, it should be noted that ‘damaging’ a single command facility virtually undefended by air defences required 7 missiles of the same class as the JASSM, something which puts the Finnish acquisition of (a maximum) of 70 JASSM into perspective.

When it comes to the defences, it is clear that the talk of the S-400 deployment in Syria creating an impenetrable A2/AD-bubble stopping western strikes was not correct. While many of the earlier Israeli strikes had taken place in areas which present difficulties for the S-400 (and supporting shorter-ranged systems) to see and intercept the targets, the strike waves approaching over the eastern Mediterranean would be more or less the perfect scenario for long-ranged SAM-systems, and is very similar to the setup of systems operating from Kaliningrad which often are described as being able to deny NATO access to the Baltic Sea. While it likely was political will that stopped the Russian air defence systems from being activated, the Syrians did their best, with around 40 missiles having been reported by Pentagon as fired. While it is not impossible that some of the cruise missiles were intercepted, it is clear from the pictures linked above that even this barrage of air defence missiles was unable to serious lessen the damage suffered by the Syrians. A significant issue was likely that all missiles struck their targets within an extremely short time span, leaving the individual air defence batteries saturated.