BY PRABASI NEPALI
Last Saturday, the air forces and navies of the US, UK and France jointly conducted strikes on several sites in Syria, firing 105 missiles. The strikes took place a week after a suspected attack on the then rebel-held town of Douma, which opposition activists, medics and rescue workers say killed more than 40 people. US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis said the allies had taken “decisive action” against the Syrian government’s “chemical weapons infrastructure”. President Bashar al-Assad’s government has denied ever using chemical weapons, and its key ally Russia says it has evidence the Douma incident was “staged”. The Syrian government insists its entire chemical arsenal was destroyed under an agreement signed after an attack in 2013 that involved the nerve agent Sarin.
The chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joseph Dunford, said warships and jets had fired missiles that hit and destroyed three targets “specifically associated with the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons programme.” The warships were deployed in the Red Sea, the northern Persian Gulf and the eastern Mediterranean Sea. First, the branch of the Scientific Studies and Research Centre (SSRC) in the capital’s northern Barzeh district was targeted. According to Gen. Dunford, this was a “centre for the research, development, production and testing of chemical and biological warfare technology.”
Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, director of the US Military’s Joint Staff, said 76 missiles were fired at the facility – 57 Tomahawk cruise missiles and 19 joint air-to-surface stand-off missiles. He also said: “Initial assessments are that this target was destroyed. This is going to set the Syrian chemical weapons programme back for years.” In May 2017, a Western intelligence agency had revealed to BBC that the SSRC branch in Barzeh, along with two others in nearby Dummar (Jamraya) and in Masyaf, in Hama province, were being used to produce chemical and biological weapons in violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC).
Second, the Him Shinshar chemical munitions storage site, west of Homs was attacked. Gen Dunford said the US believed this was “the primary location of Syrian Sarin and precursor production equipment.” ‘Precursor’ chemicals are generally dual-use chemicals that can be combined to produce blister agents like sulphur mustard or nerve agents like Sarin. The facility was used to “keep chemical weapon precursors stockpiled in breach of Syria’s obligations under the Chemical Weapons Convention” [UK Ministry of Defence/MoD]. Gen McKenzie said 22 missiles hit the facility – nine US Tomahawk missiles, 8 British Storm Shadow missiles, and 5 naval cruise missiles and 2 SCALP cruise missiles launched by France. The MoD briefed: “Very careful scientific analysis was applied to determine where best to target the Storm Shadows to maximize the destruction of the stockpiled chemicals and to minimise any risks of contamination to the surrounding area.” It added: “The facility which was struck is located some distance from any known concentrations of civilian habitation, reducing yet further any such risk.”
Third, yet another facility also west of Homs, the Him Shinshar chemical weapons bunker was targeted. Gen Dunford said the facility, about 7 km from the storage site, “contained both a chemical weapons equipment storage facility and an important command post.” Gen McKenzie said 7 SCALP missiles were deployed and that the bunker facility was “successfully hit.”
The barrage of allied missiles came from the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf and the Mediterranean, homing in from three directions to overwhelm whatever missile defences Assad’s regime might deploy. Russia’s more advanced air defence system didn’t engage the allied weapons. America’s UN ambassador, Nikki Haley was a leading voice pushing for a robust military response to the chemical weapons attack. The Trump administration was also motivated by how closely the attack followed the use of a nerve agent to poison Russian ex-spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury, England this March, an action the UK government and its allies blamed on Russia.
Gen McKenzie said initial indications were that the objectives were “accomplished without material interference from Syria”, i.e. they faced little resistance. The attacks on multiple axes by US, British and French warships and aircraft “were able to overwhelm the Syrian air defence system”. He added: “We are confident that all of our missiles reached their targets. At the end of the strike mission, all of our aircraft safely returned to their bases.” The US military assessed that more than 40 surface-to-air missiles were launched by Syrian government forces. However, “most of these launches occurred after the last impact of our strike was over,” he noted, adding that it was likely most of the missiles were fired without guidance.
Donald J. Trump tweeted the morning after: “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!” However, the fact remains that the US is bereft of any long-term strategy and the horrors of the civil war have not gone away.
Legality of the Strikes
According to Marc Weller, professor of International Law at Cambridge University, the international community needs to ensure that force cannot be used as a routine tool of international politics. And international law since 1945 precludes military strikes in retaliation or by way of reprisal. “Reprisals are acts that are in principle unlawful, but they can be excused because they aim to force a state back into compliance with its international obligations.” In striking Syria, the allies can “claim to have fulfilled an international public order function of defending the credibility of the prohibition of the use of chemical weapons in general terms [CWC/Chemical Weapons Convention], and enforcing Syria’s obligations in particular.
The US, UK and France could also invoke the doctrine of humanitarian intervention. The doctrine of responsibility to protect (R2P) was narrowed down to cover operations mandated by the UN Security Council, but some states claim a right to act when the Council cannot. According to Professor Weller: “The arrogation of the functions of the Council by a group of states claiming to act in the common interest therefore reflects the reality of the present, little Cold War between Russia and the West.”
Russian military spokesman Colonel-General Sergei Rudskoi told reporters in Moscow that “a number of Syrian military airfields, industrial and research facilities” were targeted by US, British and French missile strikes.” He said preliminary reports suggested 103 cruise missiles were launched. He added that Syria’s [mostly Soviet-era] air defence systems had “successfully countered the air and naval strikes”, intercepting 71 of the cruise missiles. Col Gen Rudskoi cited Russian military data claiming:
* 4 missiles targeted Damascus International Airport
* 12 targeted the Dumayr airbase, east of Damascus, but all were shot down
* 18 targeted the Marj Ruhayil (Bulay) airbase, south of the capital
* 12 targeted the Shayrat airbase, but all were shot down
* 5 out of the 9 that targeted the Mezzeh airport were shot down
* 13 of the 16 that targeted Homs aerodrome were shot down
* 30 targeted facilities related to Syria’s ‘alleged’ chemical weapons programme in Barzeh and Jaramana. 7 missiles were shot down. The facilities were partially destroyed, but had not been used for a long time.
Fazit according to Col Gen Rudskoi: “Russia considers the strike[s] to be a response to the success of the Syrian armed forces in fighting international terrorism and liberating its territory, rather than a response to the alleged chemical attack.”
The writer can be reached at: [email protected]