The US, France and UK fired 103 missiles at targets in Syria on the night of April 13 in response to Syria’s alleged use of chemical weapons on civilians in the Damascus suburb of Douma six days earlier.
Russia was quick to respond, calling for a UN Security Council (UNSC) emergency session that took place the next day. Angry words and accusations were traded.
"By its actions, the US is increasingly aggravating the humanitarian catastrophe in Syria, bringing suffering to civilians and actually conniving at terrorists who have been tormenting the Syrian people for seven years and provoking a new wave of refugees from that country and the region as a whole," Russia’s Permanent Envoy at the UN Vasily Nevenzya said at the emergency session on April 14.
US President Donald Trump was in celebratory mood the morning after the strikes, tweeting: “A perfectly executed strike last night. Thank you to France and the United Kingdom for their wisdom and the power of their fine Military. Could not have had a better result. Mission Accomplished!”
Analysts, meanwhile, were keen on gauging the reaction of Nato member Turkey to the military action, given Western consternation in the past year over President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s growing closeness to Moscow and Tehran. At the same time, however, the Turks are opposed to the Syrian regime and Erdogan on April 14 welcomed the airstrikes, saying at an AKP party meeing in Istanbul: “With the joint operation by US, UK and France on Saturday, the Syrian regime received the message that its massacres won’t be left unanswered. The innocent Syrian people should have been defended long ago.”
The US fired a total of 99 missiles at targets, while the UK contributed four Tornados to the strikes, which fired Storm Shadow missiles from the air close to the RAF base at Akrotiri, Cyprus, with the missiles reportedly costing an estimated $225mn. The missiles launched were among some of the most sophisticated in the countries’ arsenals and included the US military’s JASSM cruise missile, which was used in combat for the first time, according to reports.
Syrian defence forces claimed they shot down all but 31 of the fired missiles. If true that would suggest Russia deployed its advanced anti-missile systems, including the S-400, with Syria not thought to have this level of military hardware. Russia claimed that it had not used any of its installed defence capabilites and that the Syrain airforce was responsible for taking down incoming missiles using its Soviet-era air defence system. The most modern weapons in Syria's arsenal is the Russian-supplied, short-range Pantsir S-1 system, which has an anti-missile capability and, which some reports suggest Russia may have recently upgraded for the Syrian military, according to the Guardian. Moscow has warned that it may supply Syria and others with the far more modern S-300 anti-aircraft missile system. This system put on hold by Russian president Vladimir Putin in 2013 after talks with European Union leaders, but the deal may be back on the table now.
Russia has installed the sophisticated S-400 anti-aircraft missile batteries at its own naval base at Tartus, but that did not come under attack. Russia is selling the S-400 system to Nato member Turkey to the Pentagon’s dismay. The system can not be integrated with Nato hardware and the sale demonstrates Turkey’s new strategic closeness to Moscow, although it is working on purchasing other missile systems from Nato allies including France. "The latest raids have starkly underlined once again how – despite the huge humanitarian cost of the war in Syria – the country has become the proving ground for some of the world’s most advanced weapons systems, deployed by the US and Russia," the Guardian opined in a report on the technology used in the strikes.
Oddly, following the strikes, Russia’s military high command reported that it had not detected any missiles fired by France, although Paris said it had taken part in the attack and reports of the deployment of French Rafales multipurpose fighter jets. Pundits speculated that France and/or Russia were pulling their punches as French President Emmanuel Macron has defied criticism and intends to attend the St Petersburg International Economic Forum (SPIEF) in May. He has been outspoken on the need to engage with Russia to bring an end to the various conflicts Moscow is involved in.
Indeed, the whole missile exercise bore the distinct characteristics of political theatre and gesture-making. There were reports out of Moscow on April 11 that the US and Russian high commands were in intensive talks ahead of it. The US and Russians admitted that the Russian had been pre-warned of the timing and locations of the targets. The Syrian government even announced that there were no casualties as the Russians had given them the heads-up.
But the strikes raise multiple questions that were the grist to the subsequent arguments. First on the list was the legality of the attack.
International "hooliganism", international law
Russia’s ambassador to the UN Nevenzya lambasted the US for the attack saying it “makes a humanitarian disaster worse” and accused the US of international “hooliganism.” Under international law there are only three reasons one country can attack another: if a country is itself attacked, if a country is invited in by a ruling government to aid in a conflict, or if there is a UN mandate. The Western allies have met none of these requirements, whereas Russia was invited in by Damascus to aid the Syrian armed forces in their fight against Islamic State (IS) and other terrorists in the country. That fact is the basis of Russia’s claim of legitimacy for their military forces in Syria.
The issue of legitimacy was clearly on the UK’s mind and Her Majesty’s government had “no practicable alternative to the use of force” Prime Minister Theresa May said in a statement the morning after the attacks.
The UK ambassador to the UN Karen Pierce told the Security Council meeting that the legitimacy of the UK’s participation in the strikes was based on the rules covering humanitarian aid for populations suffering from a catastrophe. These allow countries to provide aid unilaterally and without the need to go through the UN. Whether these rules also apply when there are civilian deaths caused military action is not clear.
OPCW inspectors were on the way
The Russians also called into question the decision to strike only a day before Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) experts were due to arrive in Syria to decide whether chemical weapons had been used in Douma.
While the three allies all made references to media reports and other “open source” evidence of chemical weapons use in the location there has been no official confirmation of the attack by responsible bodies.
The Russians have counter-claimed that they sent experts to Douma and found “no evidence” of any chemical attack or use of chemical agents at all. Moreover, state-sponsored media in Russia and the international arm of RT have been running interviews with locals who deny that there was a state-backed chemical attack, saying at most there was a fire and hospitals treated a large number of people for smoke inhalation.
However, as the US claimed, Russian sources have to be treated with caution as the Kremlin has a history of deliberately muddying the water by floating multiple reports and multiple alternative explanations designed to confuse the audience and so undermine Western accusations made against Russia.
Nevertheless, the decision to launch the strikes a day before the OPCW were due to arrive to launch a formal investigation at least made the rebuttals and counter-propaganda job easy for the Kremlin.
“The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons dispatched its experts to Syria in order to investigate all the circumstances. However, in a sign of cynical disdain, a group of Western countries decided to take military action without waiting for the results of the investigation,” Putin said in a tersely worded statement released on the morning of April 14.
"The time for talk ended"
The US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley complained that the UNSC had met five times in the past week to discuss Syria and that the meetings had come to nothing. “Last night we acted,” said Haley at the latest meeting.
"The time for talk ended last night," Haley said, when the US, the UK and France struck targets in Syria. "We are prepared to sustain this pressure, if the Syrian regime is foolish enough to test our will." She said that Trump had told her that if the Syrian regime uses chemical weapons again "the US is locked and loaded."
Russia also wants action and submitted a draft resolution to the UNSC denouncing the missile strikes and demanding that the US, UK and France immediately stop their aggression against Syria.
Nevenzya said the document "is on the table and ready for voting." The missile strikes are aggravating the humanitarian situation and provoking a new wave of refugees, he said, Tass reported.
The UNSC meeting provided Russia with a forum to respond in public to the attacks and the rational for calling it was as much about getting footage to use domestically as it was about curbing international action against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Nothing much is expected to come of the meeting nor of the resolution submitted by Russia.
"The current escalation of the situation around Syria is exerting a destructive influence on the entire system of international relations. History will put everything in its proper place and it has already placed upon Washington grave responsibility for the bloody crackdowns on Yugoslavia, Iraq and Libya," Nevenzya said at the meeting.
Doubts over targeting
Questions were also raised over the targeting. Four facilities that the US claimed were part of Syria’s chemical weapons programme were hit. However, Russia said the facilities were largely empty and not used to produce chemical weapons.
Indeed, the whole question of the existence of Syrian chemical weapons remains unresolved. In 2013, Syria was forced to destroy all its chemical weapons and claimed that it had done so. As late as last November, the OPCW inspected one of the facilities that was bombed on April 13 and found “no traces of banned substances” and “no suspicious activity,” a fact that has allowed the Russian media to make hay.
German academic Tobias Schneider, of the Global Public Policy Institute (GPPi) in Berlin, who studies Syria, said in a tweet that if the agent used in the attack was chlorine, as many reports have suggested, then none of the facilities targeted produce chlorine—it is an industrial product and would not be produced in the high-tech facilities hit by the missiles. The fact that facilities that do produce or store chlorine were not targeted is because that would entail a much broader strike on airfields and military objects that would be far more destructive and guarantee a military clash with Russian forces.
“The final strike package was bigger than last year's (double the missiles, three targets vs one), but still smaller than what most observers, incl the Assad regime, had predicted. The scope of the attack was narrow—entirely focused on regime chemical weapons facilities,” Schneider said in a tweet thread.
“This is notable because the April 7 Douma attack—as far as we can tell—did not come out of [the targeted] tightly controlled complex. It was part of a five years-long campaign built around improvised Chlorine (less lethal choking agent) bombs waged by certain Syrian Air Force factions. As far as we can tell, no unit or facility involved in the type of attacks that likely caused Douma was targeted [in the missile strikes],” Schneider wrote.