In the first direct military US action against the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, cruise missiles launched from two warships in the Mediterranean have struck the Syrian airfield of al-Shayrat.
The strike was authorised by President Trump in response to the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons in the Idlib area this week, although Russia described the US attack as a violation of international law.
Moscow has said it will suspend an arrangement with the US under which information about flights over Syria is shared to avoid possible incidents.
The US strike against al-Shayrat involved 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles launched from the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyers USS Ross and Porter in the eastern Mediterranean.
According to the Pentagon, the strike targeted “aircraft, hardened aircraft shelters, petroleum and logistical storage, ammunition supply bunkers, air defense systems, and radars” at the airfield. The aircraft at the airfield comprised the majority of the Syrian Arab Air Force’s surviving Su-22 fighter-bombers. These represent the SyAAF’s main strike asset, and it is thought around ten were at al-Shayrat.
“We are assessing the results of the strike,” said Pentagon spokesman Capt Jeff Davis. “Initial indications are that this strike has severely damaged or destroyed Syrian aircraft and support infrastructure and equipment at Shayrat airfield, reducing the Syrian government’s ability to deliver chemical weapons,” he continued.
“The places we targeted were the things that made the airfield operate. It’s the petroleum facilities, it’s the aircraft radar, what they use for take-off and landing, as well as air defence radar,” Davis said. “It’s the sites that are specific to making it operate, as well as hangars and aircraft themselves.”
Photographs of al-Shayrat published on social media after the raid showed a collapsed hardened aircraft shelter (apparently empty). Other images showed Su-22s surviving inside undamaged HASes.
According to the Russian Ministry of Defence (MoD), only 23 of the 59 cruise missiles made it to their target.
At the same time, US-led missions against so-called Islamic State (IS) in Syria continue. On April 6 the Combined Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve conducted 24 strikes consisting of 58 engagements against targets in both Syria and Iraq. Of these, 14 strikes and 16 engagement were against IS targets in Syria.
What’s left of the Fitters?
Prior to the US missile strike, the SyAAF operated perhaps 30 Fitters, comprising Su-22M3, Su-22M4K and two-seat Su-22UM3K versions, operated by three squadrons. These were comparatively well provided with weapons including parachute-retarded FAB-500ShN general-purpose, ODAB-500ShL thermobaric and OFZAB-500 incendiary bombs, plus unguided rockets. They had no capability to operate at night.
Reports from Russia24 correspondent Evgeny Poddubny at the airfield suggest that at least nine aircraft were destroyed in the US attack, although this total is likely to include other assets at al-Shayrat.
A statement from the Russian MoD describes the destruction of “a warehouse of material and technical property, a training building, a canteen, six MiG-23 aircraft in repair hangars and a radar station…” While the ‘MiG-23’ aircraft may have been misidentified, they are known to have been based at al-Shayrat. On the other hand, at least one photo does seem to show a Su-22 destroyed in its HAS:
As well as the Fitters of 677 Squadron, the base was also home to a detachment of seven or eight Su-24MK2 Fencer strike aircraft, between five and eight MiG-23MF and MiG-23MLD Flogger fighters, five or six L-39ZA/ZO Albatros advanced trainer/light attack aircraft, and around 10 Mi-25/Mi-35 Hind helicopters. Interestingly, it seems that the Mi-35s at least were operated by joint Syrian/Russian crews.
The US apparently informed Russia about the cruise missile strike beforehand to avoid Russian casualties.