Everyone knows it’s simply a matter of when, not if, the U.S. — along with Britain, France, and even possibly Saudi Arabia — strikes Syria in retaliation for the weekend chemical attack on civilians in the Damascus suburb of Douma. Things are happening at a lightning pace, but here’s the top developments from the last day:
1. Russia threatened retaliation for any strike
In an interview with al-Manar TV, a Hizbollah-owned broadcaster in Lebanon (yes, apparently terrorist organizations own television stations), the Russian ambassador to Lebanon, Alexander Zasypkin, threatened Russian retaliation against the U.S. for any strike in Syria. “If there is a US missile attack,” he said, “we…will shoot down U.S. rockets and even the sources that launched the missiles.”
Colleagues and I discussed how a Russian attack on the USS Ross, the Arleigh Burke-Class destroyer currently on-station off the Syrian coast, while an act of war, would be a great operational test of the Russian S-400 missile, which our supposed NATO ally Turkey wants to purchase instead of the Patriot system, against the Tomahawk, and of the Aegis and Phalanx ship-protection systems systems against the Russian anti-ship missile known alternately as the SS-N-25 Switchblade (when fired from a ship) or the Kh-35U Uran (when fired from an aircraft), and the 3M-54 Kalibr ship-launched cruise missile.
Russian fighters outfitted with what appear to be Kh-35Us were spotted flying over the Syrian port of Tartus as recently as Tuesday.
2. Trump taunted the Russians.
President Trump once criticized President Obama for broadcasting his intentions regarding Syria. Yesterday, he found himself unable to contain himself, either. In an early-morning tweet, the president warned “Russia vows to shoot down any and all missiles fired at Syria. Get ready Russia, because they will be coming, nice and new and ‘smart!’ You shouldn’t be partners with a Gas Killing Animal who kills his people and enjoys it!”
I have repeatedly said that Trump’s tweets are not official policy, they are spontaneous outbursts. Regardless, for those still believing that the president is somehow beholden to Russian President Vladimir Putin, statements such as this ought to dissuade them. For all his bluster, Trump is a grandfather and has a love of children. The deaths of children at he hands of the Syrian regime outweighs just about anything else, as it did a year ago.
3. Russia puffed its chest, but mobilized its ships.
Russian government spokesman Dmitry Peskov said, “We do not participate in Twitter diplomacy,” while Maria Zakharova, a spokeswoman for the Russian foreign ministry, suggested that U.S. strikes would be an attempt to obliterate any traces of the attacks, which the Russian government has comically tried to blame on the U.S., or even the “White Helmets” of the Syrian Civil Defense organization.
Meanwhile, photos from ImageSat International, an Israeli satellite company, show that the entire Russian fleet in Syria, save for one Kilo-Class submarine, had left the port of Tartus Wednesday. Doing so not only makes them less of a target, but potentially places them closer to any U.S. ships that could launch cruise missiles at Syria.
4. The Syrian Air Force may have fled
In a unique twist on the terrorist “human shield” tactic, the Syrian Air force has spent the last few days moving its fleet from its own air bases, both to Russian-controlled bases in Syria and to Iran. The transfers started after missiles, reportedly fired by Israel, struck the T4 airfield near Homs. While parking their planes in Iran may work for now, the Syrians seem to think that parking them next to Russian ones will save them. While I agree it certainly changes the calculus, given the dismal state of U.S.-Russia relations, it would not surprise me one bit if Trump ignored the Russian presence and struck regardless.
5. Assad himself may have fled
Like a rat from a sinking ship, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, his family, and his closest advisers may have fled the country for safe haven in Iran. There are two reports: one that Assad left his capital of Damascus in a Russian Convoy, the other that over two days, three Syrian airliners flew to Tehran and remained on the ground there. Speculation is that they carried Assad, his family, and closest advisers out of harm’s way.
Given the ability of U.S. unmanned aerial systems to hit specific targets, this is probably not a bad idea.