What was the effectiveness of the US cruise missile strike on al Shayrat airbase?
There are many uncertainties surrounding President Trump’s decision to strike the Syrian regime’s al Shayrat airbase. Firstly, contrary to what the Trump administration and the mainstream media would have you believe, there are many reasons to doubt the official narrative that Assad conducted the Khan Sheikhoun chemical attack, the ostensible reason for Trump’s abrupt and bellicose reaction.1 There is also uncertainty on how effective the US cruise missile strike on the airbase was.
According to the Pentagon “A total of 59 [Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles] targeted aircraft, hardened aircraft shelters, petroleum and logistical storage, ammunition supply bunkers, air defense systems, and radars.”2 Two Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyers in the Mediterranean Sea, the USS Porter and USS Ross, launched the missiles, all of which purportedly struck their intended target. As Trump stated during a Fox Business interview “We’ve just fired 59 missiles, all of which hit, by the way, unbelievable, from, you know, hundreds of miles away, all of which hit, amazing.”3 A US source also claimed the strike destroyed “approximately 20 aircraft”, while Secretary of Defense James Mattis stated that “20 percent of Syria’s operational aircraft” were taken out.4
While this is what the US is claiming about the al Shayrat strike, the Russians and Syrians are presenting a different story. According to Russian Ministry of Defense spokesman Major General Igor Konashenkov “only 23 cruise missiles reached the Syrian airbase. It is not clear where the other 36 cruise missiles landed.”5 PressTV reported that according to residents of Shayrat, some of the cruise missiles missed the airbase and struck their village.6 The Syrian regime claimed that the strike killed 6 people on the base along with 9 civilians, including 4 children, in the surrounding villages.7 The Russians have also claimed that only “nine Syrian airplanes were destroyed” not 20.8
So we clearly have conflicting accounts of the effects of Trump’s attack on al Shayrat. The Americans are leading us to believe that their response was well executed and had a significant punitive effect on Assad, making him think twice about using chemical weapons against civilians again. The Russians, besides considering the US actions to be reckless and illegal based on international law, are basically characterizing them as militarily impotent. Military spokesman Konashenkov described the combat efficiency of the strike as “quite poor,”9 while political commentator Sergey Strokan stated it “did not change much from the military point of view, Moscow still preserves room for maneuver and counter-play.”10 What are we to make of this seemingly contradictory situation?
How many cruise missile struck the airbase?
Lets start with the matter of how many missiles actually struck their intended targets. Since 1991, in nearly every major military action it has undertaken, the US has used Tomahawk cruise missiles11 and consequently they have been proven to be a reliable weapons system. So one would assume that the vast majority of the missiles launched should have struck their intended targets at the airbase.
Russian claims that 36 missiles ‘missed’ appear very similar to those made by US sources in 2015, who claimed that four Kalibr cruise missiles launched from Russian warships in the Caspian sea against Syrian ISIL targets strayed off course and instead landed in northern Iraq.12 The US claims were unsubstantiated and most likely an attempt to discredit Russia’s military intervention in Syria. By analogy one could safely assume that the Russians are currently doing likewise to the US.
However, is it not possible that Russian forces either intercepted or interfered with some of the incoming Tomahawks? Well it is possible, as they have the military capabilities to do so. Protecting Khmeimim (a.k.a Hmeimim or Hmeymim) airbase, the Russians have the formidable S-300 and S-400 surface-to-air missiles (SAM) systems, which are more than capable of downing a Tomahawk and are well within range of al Shayrat (~100 miles).
Another possibility is that electronic warfare measures were used to jam and misdirect the missiles.13 It is interesting that a recent Russian news report claimed “Today, our Russian Electronic Warfare (REW) troops can detect and neutralise any target from a ship’s system and a radar, to a satellite.”14 This report most likely exaggerates Russia’s electronic warfare abilities, yet these abilities are nonetheless very advanced and possibly capable of countering US weapon systems such as the Tomahawk.15
It should be remembered that in 2011 Iran somehow managed to commandeer an American RQ-170 Sentinel stealth drone.16 If Iran is capable of using electronic warfare to such an effect back then, what do you think the Russians are capable of today?
While the Russians may have the capability to down 36 Tomahawks, the question remains did they actually do so? On one hand this seems unlikely. Firstly, the missiles that comprise the S-400 system are not cheap, and destroying ~60 incoming targets, could be rather expensive for Russia. Secondly, the Russians may have refrained from such actions because they did not want to reveal their full military capabilities to the US. Furthermore successful use of the S-400 or of electronic measures could have provided the US the impetus and opportunity to develop countermeasures to these systems.
Finally there was the possibility that such a Russian response could seriously escalate the situation. As Sergey Sudakov, an expert at the Russian Academy for Military Sciences, explained:17
“The main question which is being asked is why the Russian air-defense systems did not intercept [American] cruise missiles. Ordinary people think it should have been done, thus the attack could have been repelled. But if we had started to intercept them–we may not have awakened in the morning, since it could have meant ‘a nuclear conflict’ since it could have been a clash between two nuclear superpower in the territory of a third state.”
On the other hand, it is notable that a geopolitical expert like Dr. Theodore Karasik is seriously considering the possibility that the Russians did in fact intercept or jam the incoming US Tomahawks. Dr. Karasik, who was once apart of the RAND Corporation’s International Policy and Security Group and who writes editorial pieces for Al Arabiya among other things, said the following when interviewed by RiskHedge:18
“Not all missiles made their target. There were supposed to be 60. One malfunctioned on one of the ships. 36 made target, the remainder did not. And, there’s a question of where did they go?
The missing [missiles] were either brought down by S-300 battery or were taken over by Russian electronic jamming and were plunged into the sea. Now, this alternative theory means that the US and Russia have already clashed if you will—technically—with the use of the TLAMs [Tomahawk] and then being intercepted or taken over by Russian control.
This is very important because it illustrates that we’ve had our first encounter with the Russians, and that sets the stage for potentially future encounters between Washington and Russia on the Syrian battlefield.”
It is interesting that Dr. Karasik accepts the Russian account and as a result there must be some explanation for why 36 missiles missed their target, the most likely being that Russian countermeasures were responsible. If this is in fact the case I suspect the electronic countermeasures were used, as this would be cheaper than the use of the S-400 system and it leaves much less of a trace.
How much damage was done to the airbase?
While the US claims that their strike was highly damaging and effective, there is reason to believe that this is not the case. First off, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (no friend of Assad), 24 hours after al Shayrat was struck, Syrian warplanes had taken off from the airbase.19 It seems like Michael Savage was on point when he mocked Trump’s actions in Syria as nothing more than a “military tweet.”20
Mattis’ claim that 20% of Assad operational air force was destroyed is also highly dubious. According to the Global Firepower website, as of 2016, Syria had 390 fighters and attack planes.21 20% of this number amounts to 78 aircraft destroyed or damaged, yet US sources claimed that only ~20 aircraft were destroyed. Now it is possible that the numbers provided by Global Firepower are out of date and that currently the Syrian air force has less than 390 operational fighters and attack planes, but it could also be the case that Mattis is overstating the effectiveness of the strike, which is consistent with all the other inconsistencies coming out of the Trump administration on this situation.
One reason why effect of the strike was minimized was Russia’s foreknowledge of it. According to some Russian officials, they were informed of the attack 30 minutes before it happened, although some suspect they were forewarned hours beforehand.22 The latter contention is supported by comments made by Putin: “Yes, it [the strike] was completely unexpected, aside from the fact, of course, that we learned about it a few hours in advance.”23 With the Russians having forewarning, they obviously notified their Syrian colleagues, who probably had enough time to fly aircraft out of the base before it was struck, as has been claimed by Syrian sources.
Were chemical weapons stored at al Shayrat?
Another odd aspect of the attack was whether or not al Shayrat airbase stored chemical weapons, which presumably would be the case if the base was used to conduct a chemical attack on Khan Sheikhoun. If chemical weapons such as sarin were stockpiled on the base, wouldn’t attacking it with cruise missiles potentially lead to the release of such deadly agents into the atmosphere and potentially contaminate the surrounding villages leading to significant civilian casualties?
If Trump was so moved by the suffering of children, did he not realize that his actions may actually cause the same suffering to the children living around the airbase. Or did the US know that there were no chemical weapons at the base? Consistent with the latter possibility the already cited Pentagon statement made no mention of striking chemical weapons stores.
Images have surfaced showing what appears to be chemical weapons storage canisters strewn about a part of the al Shayrat airbase.24 It is unclear when this photo was taken and what the contents of the canisters are. Furthermore why would hazardous substances be stored out in the open in this manner? And if they were, would not the US, via spy satellites, have discovered this illicit stash of chemicals, and notified the world that Assad had violated his 2014 agreement to hand over all of his chemical weapons?
With all of these unanswered question it is remarkable, even ridiculous, that many have blindly accepted the mainstream narrative. In reality it seems highly unlikely that al Shayrat airbase was housing chemical weapons (although I would not be surprised if Assad does in fact maintain a secret arsenal of chemical weapons for use if he is about to be overrun).
Russia has not backed down
The effectiveness of the al Shayrat strike seems questionable. It is possible that over half of the missiles did not hit their target due to Russian countermeasures and the ones that did land, while causing damage, did not make the airbase inoperable and likely did not destroy 20% of Assad’s operational air force. Most importantly the Russians do not seem to be overly intimidated.
They are still backing Assad and are escalating the situation themselves, or at the least not backing down. Along with the Iranians, they have warned “What America waged in an aggression on Syria is a crossing of red lines. From now on we will respond with force to any aggressor or any breach of red lines from whoever it is and America knows our ability to respond well.”25
In light of being attacked by the US, Assad has expressed interest in upgrading his air defense capabilities, presumably by purchasing the S-300 system, and Russia seems open to satisfying their ally’s desire.26 It is also being reported that Syria’s remaining fighter jets will now be based at Khmeimim, which is Russia’s command center in Syria.27 If the US decides to strike Assad’s air force again, they will have to contend with the S-400 system and the high probability of killing Russian personnel. So Putin has not backed down but has made his own chess move.
Ultimately it is difficult to make sense of the al Shayrat situation. The US says one thing, the Russians and Syrians another. Ultimately there are many holes in the US account of the Khan Sheikhoun chemical attack, which was Trump’s ostensible reason for taking action against Syria, and as I have demonstrated herein, there also appear to be many holes in their account of the al Shayrat attack. As such I am highly skeptical of the US narrative, but I also realize that the Russians are pushing their own counter-narrative which may or may not be in accordance with reality.
As German political scientist Michael Lüders, speaking of the Khan Sheikhoun incident, put it (emphasis mine):28
“But the experience of the attack in Ghouta of August 2013 should make every responsible media outlet aware that we should be careful with recriminations. Fundamentally, everyone in this war, above all the regime, is capable of anything. You do not exclude that it was them, but you say that at present, we cannot know for sure that it was them. That is exactly the point. But when I look, for example, at the news today, the editorials that were published today, then the direction of reporting is very clear. The direction of impact is clear, yes. —The direction of impact is clear. Assad is pilloried once again; why haven’t we done anything —You can see a pattern in it. Quickly the Russian side will come with a totally different explanation. Like, “Let us put something out there, it will find its way.” And you do not have any certainties anymore upon which you might rely.”
This is the problem that we currently face, not only do we not know who to rely on for the truth, it is becoming increasingly evident that the one certainty that currently exists is that we cannot rely on governments and mainstream media for the truth. All states and their media organs are pushing deceptive narratives, which are intended to mold the way we think and how we react to events.
All we can do is to be critical of the news we are being fed, and be mindful that it is not meant to inform us but at the least to manage our perceptions and at worst to completely deceive us. While we are told that the Russians are the ones propagating ‘fake’ news, and obviously they are spreading some misinformation to serve their purposes, it must be realized that the US and its media is doing so as well. As the Khan Sheikhoun and al Shayrat incidents illustrate, it is sadly becoming apparent that the US is becoming less trustworthy than Russia, and that Trump is faltering in his attempt to drain the swamp.
 Did Assad or the Russians use chemical weapons against civilians in Syria or are we dealing with a false flag operation? Is Trump being duped by the neocons? , More reason to believe that Assad did not gas civilians and that Trump has been duped or is even aware of the reality , More on the Khan Sheikhoun chemical attack: expert and CIA officials not buying the mainstream narrative
 http://www.zerohedge.com/news/2017-04-07/syrian-warplanes-us-hit-air-base-said-resume-air-strikes , http://english.alarabiya.net/en/News/middle-east/2017/04/08/Syrian-jets-take-off-from-Shayrat-airbase-hours-after-it-was-attacked-by-US.html
 https://sputniknews.com/military/201704221052882248-russia-syria-air-defense/ , http://www.presstv.ir/Detail/2017/04/22/519039/Russia-Syria-air-defense-systems-Ozerov-chemical-attack-