ChrisWeigant.com

Assessing The Raid On Syria

[ Posted Monday, April 16th, 2018 – 18:01 PDT ]

This weekend, the United States, France, and Great Britain launched an airstrike on Syria which involved a little over 100 cruise missiles fired at three targets, all stated to be involved with Syria's chemical weapons program. This was a retaliatory strike, in reaction to a chemical weapons attack the United States claims was launched by Syrian leader Bashar Al-Assad. Doing so crossed the American "red line" and thus had to be punished.

While there have been complaints about the raid from both sides of the political spectrum here at home, as well as denunciations of the raid from Syria, Russia, and Iran, it largely seems to have achieved its limited purposes. Some of the claims from the Pentagon may be a bit overstated (which isn't that unusual, really), but the purpose of the airstrike was to give Assad a bit of a bloody nose as a warning not to use chemical weapons again. In that respect, it seems to have worked as designed.

 

Military assessment

Before taking a look at the politics involved, though, we should first attempt to make a military assessment of the raid. This was the second such airstrike in retaliation for the use of chemical weapons, of course. The first happened almost exactly one year earlier, when President Trump targeted a Syrian airfield with 60 cruise missiles. The Pentagon reported that 59 of those hit their targets, and that one malfunctioned in flight in some way. The damage to the target wasn't all that extensive for such a massive attack, and the airfield was back in business within hours.

This weekend's strike was a step up, militarily. Rather than just bombing runways and (mostly empty) hangars to make an international point, this time three sites were chosen. The Pentagon claimed that one site was a storage facility for chemical weapons, one was a bunker, and one was a research and development facility that produced and developed chemical weapons. That last one was the most important, although Assad claimed it was nothing more than a "cancer research facility."

Of the total number of cruise missiles launched, over 70 were targeted on the R-and-D facility. That is an enormous number of missiles for a complex consisting of only three buildings. To put it in context, in 1998 when Bill Clinton launched a cruise missile attack on a Sudanese pharmaceutical factory (that he claimed was involved in chemical weapons), only 13 cruise missiles were launched at the facility. This weekend's attack on a Syrian facility involved over five times the number of missiles for a single facility, in other words.

A total of 105 missiles were launched -- 66 Tomahawks from U.S. Navy ships and submarines, 19 missiles from U.S. Air Force bombers, 8 British missiles, and 12 French missiles. The sea-based launches happened from the Mediterranean Sea, the Persian Gulf, and the Red Sea. The research center was targeted by 76 of these missiles, the weapons storage site was targeted by 22 missiles, and the bunker was targeted by the remaining 7 missiles. The Pentagon maintains that all of the missiles successfully hit their targets. The Russians claim they shot down 71 of the missiles.

While propaganda claims on both sides are normal in any wartime event, this is more than just an academic question. The flight path of the missiles was chosen to avoid areas of Syria which are directly being defended by Russian air defense systems, but this was more for political reasons than military. The Russians have provided the Syrians with incredibly advanced Russian anti-aircraft systems, so there isn't much technological difference between the two, no matter whose military is actually manning the systems.

In all proxy wars, great powers are known to use the conflict as a test bed for their weapons and defensive systems. Syria is no different. This is not Sudan, in other words, where Bill Clinton was able to attack a site with a limited number of missiles -- this is closer to what an attack on Moscow might be like. The Syrian air defense systems are nothing more than Russia's test bed for their advanced technology. So the question of how many missiles got through has much larger implications than three sites being bombed in a small country.

The Pentagon, it should be noted, is not above making wild claims of success when the reality is quite different. In the first Gulf War, the Patriot anti-missile missiles were said to perform almost perfectly, shooting down almost every Scud missile Iraq fired. Years later, it was revealed that the Patriots only successfully intercepted a tiny fraction of the incoming Scuds. So Pentagon claims of perfection should always be taken with a healthy dose of skepticism. Perhaps the rate of successful missile strikes in Syria will -- years later, no doubt -- be revealed to be somewhat less than 100 percent. Alternatively, the Russians' claims should also probably be taken with a grain of salt. Perhaps they shot down some incoming missiles, but probably nowhere near the 70 percent of them that they are claiming.

Cruise missiles are incredibly hard to shoot down, although not impossible. Unlike ballistic missiles, they are stealthy and can maneuver on their own. Picture a children's snowball fight to understand this. Snowballs are ballistic -- once thrown, the only thing which influences their flight path is physics (gravity, and to a much lesser extent, the wind). The course a snowball takes in flight can be calculated pretty easily. But a cruise missile is like sending a drone out with a snowball on board. The drone can hug the ground or loop around trees or bushes, and it can change direction instantly. It's much harder to defend against such an attack, in other words. Cruise missiles can hug the terrain to defeat radar systems and they can change direction multiple times, although the closer they get to their target the more straightforward their flight path is going to necessarily be. It's not impossible to shoot them down, but it is very hard to do so -- that's why they were developed in the first place.

After-action photos have been released of all three sites, showing what appears to be almost total destruction. So it certainly looks like enough of the missiles found their targets to achieve the military objective of the strike. Sending 76 cruise missiles at a single target could certainly be classified as overkill, but it did guarantee that enough of them would get through almost any air defense system to obliterate the target -- which is exactly what appears to have happened.

 

Political assessment

America's overall military strategy for Syria was to crush the Islamic State and, by doing so, obliterate their so-called caliphate. This has largely -- but not totally -- already been achieved. This is why a few weeks ago, President Trump made an unexpected call to pull all of the thousands of American troops out of the country immediately. He was ultimately convinced otherwise by the Pentagon (who were reportedly aghast to learn that Trump wanted them all out within 48 hours -- a military impossibility). But he did have a point -- at one time, the Islamic State controlled a major portion of the ground in Syria, and now they are reduced to several small pockets of resistance, having been forced out of almost all the towns, cities, and oil fields they used to control.

Both President Obama and Trump have shied away from any larger military objective in Syria, for the most part. America is not fighting for regime change, in other words, and has (again, for the most part) delicately avoided directly confronting any Russian or Iranian forces within the country. But Obama famously laid down a "red line" on the use of chemical weapons, which he then did not follow through on. Trump was determined to do so, and has now launched two strikes in response to worldwide media attention on individual chemical attacks. These weren't the only two chemical attacks which have taken place in Syria over the past year, but they were the most widely reported on.

Both of these strikes were fairly timid, as military airstrikes go. In the first, we warned the Russians ahead of time so they could clear out of the airfield before the attack was launched. Then we limited what was targeted, meaning it didn't do much in the way of lasting damage. The runways were cratered, but they were also soon fixed. This time around, we sent a message with our choice of targets, but again this list of targets was rather limited. We struck in the early morning and bent over backwards to avoid any civilian casualties, or indeed any casualties at all.

We did not target the Assad regime in any significant way. We did not target the Syrian air force. We did not bomb targets that would have helped the rebel forces fighting Assad. We did not target larger military objectives like the country's command and control networks. And we most certainly did not target Russian or Iranian forces. The message sent was that a price would be paid for chemical attacks, but at the same time that America was not interested in escalating our military objectives in Syria at all.

That's a tough tightrope to walk, but as of this point it looks like Trump successfully navigated it. Nobody can say he did nothing, but nobody can accuse him of trying to take out Assad or overthrow his regime, either. It was a pinprick strike that succeeded in its limited goals.

There wasn't much of a hue and cry against Trump's actions in domestic American politics, or at least not yet. The hawks are grumbling that we should have been more aggressive in our target choices, and the doves are grumbling that Trump is escalating our involvement in Syria, but neither of these storylines has so far gotten much traction.

Some in Congress are complaining that it was an illegal attack, since Congress didn't have any say in the matter. However, all recent presidents have launched similar attacks without consulting Congress, so it isn't all that unusual. Congress has largely abdicated its power to declare war for many decades now, and hasn't even updated the authority it granted the White House immediately after the 9/11 attacks, so they really don't have much of a leg to stand on (although the Senate has very recently made some moves towards rewriting the post-9/11 Authorization for the Use of Military Force, so this could change within the next month or two).

Some complain that Trump is running a Wag The Dog scenario, using military action to distract from his own political problems (which are many, and growing). However, it's pretty obvious that Trump was motivated to act because of Syria's use of chemical weapons, and Trump had no control over that timing. Trump was incoherent last week on when and how we would retaliate, but in the end it seems the generals at the Pentagon acted with caution and with a plan in place for a tricky, co-ordinated assault from ships in three different seas and the militaries from three separate countries. The attack was carried out with no obvious missteps, as well, so it was obviously well-planned. Some have noted that the delay between when Trump started threatening an attack and the attack itself might have allowed the Syrians (and definitely the Russians) to vacate the sites long before the missiles were launched. This may have indeed been the case, but then again we were mostly concerned with sending a political message ("Assad will pay a price for using chemical weapons") than a military one.

The Pentagon claimed that they "set back Syria's chemical weapons program by years," but that is almost certainly overstating the case. Chlorine gas -- the chemical weapon used in the recent attack -- is not all that hard to make. The technology for doing so goes back to World War I, so it's not all that technologically tough to do. To truly prevent Syria from making chlorine weapons would require bombing every chemical lab and facility in the country, as well as wiping out all stocks of some very common chemicals. This, obviously, would be almost impossible to achieve, and would take a whole lot more than 105 cruise missiles.

The targets were symbolic, largely. But they were also an escalation from our last cruise missile attack. Meaning if Assad uses chemical weapons again, we might step up our list of targets once again. Next time we could, for instance, try to take out the entire Syrian air force -- to deny them any easy means of delivering such weapons.

The first retaliatory attack Trump launched was no more than a slap on the wrist to Assad. This one was a bit more forceful -- bloodying his nose a bit rather than just putting him on notice. But it still didn't rise to the level of real deterrence.

Even if Assad decides it is not worth the cost to use chemical weapons in the future, he is still quite able (and willing) to slaughter his own people with conventional weapons. A reported half a million Syrians have already been killed by these weapons, after all. They don't get worldwide press coverage, as we saw all of last week (all those videos of victims being treated in hospitals), but being killed by a bullet or a barrel bomb leaves you just as dead as being killed by chemicals.

Trump had to launch a "Goldilocks strike" -- not too big, and not too small. He didn't want to escalate America's involvement in Syria to the point where we were directly attacking Syrian forces, but he also didn't want to do nothing when the whole world was seeing those horrific videos. This may be the first time I've actually said this on pretty much any subject involving the current president, but it looks to me like Trump got it about right this time around. Politically, it will probably do him no harm and may do him some good. Militarily, he didn't escalate too much, and he has been convinced that pulling all U.S. troops out within days is not a viable plan of action either. Trump even -- for the first time -- included American allies in his plans. The generals at the Pentagon presented him with an option that threaded the needle between doing too much and doing too little. Trump, to his credit, agreed with the right plan. It was limited in its objectives, by design, but it seems to have achieved those objectives well.

-- Chris Weigant

 

Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant

 

18 Comments on “Assessing The Raid On Syria”

  1. [1] 
    neilm wrote:

    More kabuki - not that Trump is unique in this situation.

  2. [2] 
    Michale wrote:

    This may be the first time I've actually said this on pretty much any subject involving the current president, but it looks to me like Trump got it about right this time around.

    Could you say that into my GOOD ear?? I coulda swore you just called me 'Ace'..."
    -Jim Carrey, ACE VENTURA-PET DETECTIVE

    It's good to see that someone here can give the President credit where credit is due..

    I am betting no one (sans one, maybe two) else will... They will all claim that President Trump had NOTHING to do with it. That it was General Mattis or some such other....

    Kudos to you CW... Making such a position public in the midst of the lions den....

    Ballsy....

  3. [3] 
    TheStig wrote:

    CW-You always do an excellent job with your after action military assessments. I would only add a few things.

    Thing One: I'd wager Trump had nothing to do with this operation other than diverting his gaze from the Cable News and saying yes, possibly by nodding. This is the same President who last week wanted all US forces out Syria in 48 hrs. What a difference a week makes. The Brass made a strong, brief pitch, and Trump said yes. Trump generally says yes to the last person(s) he hears. The people in uniforms had missiles ready to go.

    Thing Two: Syria is extremely vulnerable to cruise missile attack. Like most of populated Syria, Damascus and Homs are within 50 miles of the Med. Allowing for another 50 or so miles of standoff for ship and/or sub launch platforms, that's maybe 10 minutes of early warning, which is not a lot of time to get an air defense system up and running. Cruise missiles coming from The Gulf and Red Sea would be traveling in over poorly defended desert and bad lands, very possibly delivered by bombers well inland from their take-off location.

    Thing Three: Most of the Syrian air defense system is based upon the obsolescent and poorly maintained S-200 system. This is a late '50s design fielded in the late sixties and upgraded to the present. The Russian's in Syria have the S-400 air defense system, but it is still in development and was not used - very likely because the Russians aren't confident it would work, or because they don't want to give the West detailed intelligence about how it works. By the way, S-200 and S-400 are not missiles, they are systems of missiles, radars, launchers and command and control goodies. Any news source that talks about an S-400 missile doesn't know what the F they are talking about.

    Thing Four: Cruise missiles are hard to kill, but ballistic missiles are far harder. Cruise missile are relatively slow and you can kill them by disabling the air frame, the guidance, the propulsion system or the warhead. The Serbians knocked down a few NATO cruise missiles. A ballistic missile travels much, much faster than a cruise missile, and once in terminal phase, you have have to kill the warhead-and war heads have small,hard heads. Put a bit simplistically, precision argues for cruise missiles, survivability for ballistic missiles.

    Thing Five: Putin is putting up a brave front with bogus numbers, but he is privately dressing down the Russian trainers in Syria for the poor performance of their Syrian clients. This is a routine procedure after most middle east wars or little wars.

  4. [4] 
    TheStig wrote:

    The "police sketch" of the man purported to have threatened Stormy D. has been released. In the immortal words of Mayor Quimby:

    "That could be anyone's ass."

  5. [5] 
    Michale wrote:

    Thing One: I'd wager Trump had nothing to do with this operation other than diverting his gaze from the Cable News and saying yes, possibly by nodding.

    Well, I guess I called THAT one dead on ballz accurate.. :D

    The HHPTDS is strong with most everyone here. :D

  6. [6] 
    Michale wrote:

    https://pbs.twimg.com/media/Da_rEH3U8AAHrKj.jpg

    Obviously, the guy who "threatened" Stormy is Willem Dafoe...

    :^/

  7. [7] 
    Balthasar wrote:

    Obviously, the guy who "threatened" Stormy is Willem Dafoe...

    Dude, doesn't look a thing like Dafoe. Looks like Stormy's idea of a TILF (as in, thug I'd like to..).

    East Coast/Italian heritage, but not street punk. Based on this drawing, I'd guess an actor.

  8. [8] 
    Michale wrote:

    Dude, doesn't look a thing like Dafoe.

    Apparently, I am not the only one who thinks so..

    https://www.thedailybeast.com/did-a-young-willem-dafoe-threaten-stormy-daniels-internet-goes-wild-trying-to-id-her-sketch

    So bite me...

  9. [9] 
    Michale wrote:

    So bite me...

    Apologies.. I am a little rusty..

    I should have added a :^D after that...

    :D

  10. [10] 
    Balthasar wrote:

    You and the Daily beast can feast on me :D

    I think it looks like a young James Marsden myself:

    http://i.perezhilton.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/james-marsden-comments-on-tye-sheridans-casting-in-x-men4__oPt.jpg

  11. [11] 
    Balthasar wrote:

    Trump's Tax returns, which he should have filed today, are not yet being audited. Can we see them?

  12. [12] 
    nypoet22 wrote:

    ultimately it doesn't matter if donald made the decision by blowing bubbles out of his nose, he made a good decision and deserves credit, just as he deserves the blame for all his poor decisions.

  13. [13] 
    nypoet22 wrote:

    @cw,

    3-dot tuesday?

    JL

  14. [14] 
    Michale wrote:

    ultimately it doesn't matter if donald made the decision by blowing bubbles out of his nose, he made a good decision and deserves credit, just as he deserves the blame for all his poor decisions.

    That's one.. :D

  15. [15] 
    Michale wrote:

    Trump's Tax returns, which he should have filed today, are not yet being audited. Can we see them?

    Just as soon as we see Obama's school records..

  16. [16] 
    nypoet22 wrote:

    @michale,

    A
    A
    A
    A
    A
    A
    A
    A
    A
    A
    A
    A
    A
    A
    A
    A
    A
    A
    A

    Give or take a few A's

    JL

  17. [17] 
    nypoet22 wrote:

    and how do i know? he was editor of harvard law review for chrissakes!

  18. [18] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    Michale [2] -

    Somehow I just knew you'd like this column. And don't be such a stranger! Heh.

    The Stig [3] -

    First, thanks for the kind words and all.

    Thing One (is this The Cat In The Hat?... sorry...): Good point, but it shows the Pentagon brass had their ducks in precisely the right row, so kudos to them for presenting him with the right option. I am reminded of the "President Schwarzenegger" scene from The Simpsons Movie, in fact:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5D3mqiKgquY

    Thing Four: You know, I almost included in this article a riff (right around where I said it was akin to attacking Moscow) on "close only counts in horseshoes... and hand grenades... and nuclear weapons" but it was already running long...

    I didn't mention the arc. Cruise missiles, as designed, fly pretty low to the ground. That makes them vulnerable to ground fire in a way that ballistic missiles really aren't. So even a few lucky guys with AK-47s might, in the perfect scenario, bring down a Tomahawk. Whereas ballistic missiles really need to be hit in the boost phase or the high arc coast phase to be knocked out. Boost is better, but requires some mighty quick action.

    The thing that always gives me pause is that after the warheads are released in an ICBM (multiple ones, remember the acronym MIRV?) they can be disguised by decoys that are essentially just big mylar balloons. Which our own anti-missile systems have never really been adequately tested against.

    But anyway, you're right. I did oversimplify considerably. When more detailed after-action reports are available, maybe I'll delve into it more...

    Balthasar [11] -

    He filed for an extension, so I guess we'll all get to see them on October 15th... or not (as the case may be)!

    :-)

    -CW

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