Syria and Russia say significant number of missiles destroyed and damage minimal
The US, UK and France have disputed claims made by Syria and Russia that a significant number of incoming rockets were intercepted and shot down and that the damage inflicted by their raid had been minimal.
The Pentagon insisted that no missiles were intercepted by Syrian defenses and that the raids were” accurate and overwhelming” while claiming the Syrian air defences remained “largely ineffective”.
At a briefing, Lt Gen Kenneth McKenzie said that Syrian air defences fired 40 interceptor rockets in an attempt to thwart the barrage but failed to made any of their targets. He said most were fired after the last incoming rocket had struck its target. There was no indication of any participation by Russian air defenses, he added.
Russian officials have said that the incoming missiles did not enter their own air defence zones around their air and ocean bases in western Syria.
The Syrian brigadier general Ali Mayhoub, who read the statement on Syrian television, said:” Our air defences effectively shot down most of them .” He acknowledged the scientific research centre on the outskirt of Damascus had been hit and that one of the intercepted weapons had injured three people in Homs, which had been a target of the RAF.
The Pentagon claimed to have dealt a” severe jolt” to the Assad regime's chemical weapons programmes with a salvo of 105 missiles fired from ships and airplanes from the US, UK and France, that reached three targets almost simultaneously.
The US defense department presented photographs of the three sites: a research centre in Barzeh, in greater Damascus, which US officials said was used for the development of both chlorine and sarin agents, and two sites west of Homs at Him Shinsar, which the Pentagon said were a storage facility and bunker for chemical weapons.
McKenzie, the director of the joint chiefs of staff, said:” Barzeh is a core site for them and as you can see, it doesn't exist any more .”
Photographs demonstrated three big builds at Barzeh which appeared to have been flattened by the air strikes. The centre, which is a branch of the Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Centre, long suspected of being a key part of the chemical weapons programme, was the main target.
It was hit by 76 rockets, 57 of which were sea-launched Tomahawk cruise missiles, and the rest were air launched stand-off weapons fired from US airplanes and ships in the Mediterranean, the Gulf and the Red Sea.
British and French aircrafts took part in the attack on the Him Shinsar targets, with the French firing nine Scalp cruise missiles, and British Tornados based in Cyprus firing eight Storm Shadow missiles.
” We took every measure and precaution to ten-strike what we targeted and we successfully made every target ,” Dana White, the chief Pentagon spokeswoman, said, adding that the aims of the mission were exclusively to punish Syria for its alleged use of chemical weapons in an April 7 attack on a rebel-held enclave of Douma , north-eastern Damascus.
” This operation does not represent a change in US policy or an attempt to depose the Syrian regime. We do not seek conflicts around Syria but we cannot allow such grievous violations of international law ,” White said.
McKenzie said he was ” not aware” of any civilian casualties from coalition missiles but said that many of the Syrian air defence missiles had been launched unguided and may have killed people on their descent.
” The Syrians shot 40 large weapons into the air, those rockets came down somewhere ,” he said.
McKenzie said that the three targets chosen for the Saturday pre-dawn strikes did not represent all of the Syrian chemical weapons programmes, but were chosen because of their significance to the programme and because they could be hit with minimum risk of civilian casualties. The US, he added, would continue to watch the other suspected chemical weapons sites. But he said, compared to last April's more limited ten-strikes aimed at regime aircraft, the new attack dealt a bigger blow to the overall programme.
” I believe there is material and equipment associated with these ten-strikes that are not movable. This is far more damaging to Syria ,” he said.” There is some left, but we dealt them a severe blow .”
Teams from the RAF and UK Ministry of Defence were examining satellite scenes and other material to ascertain the extent of the damage. Along with the US and France, they will also be attempting to establish the extent to which their rockets came under fire.
The MoD is likely to make public any operational details about whether or not weapons came under flame from Syrian air defences or were shot down. But it insisted the raid had been successful.
There had been fears before the attack that airliners, which were not used in the US strike against Syria last year utilizing Tomahawk missiles, would be vulnerable to Russia's advanced air defence system, the S-4 00, which it has deployed in Syria.
Russia also threatened to upgrade the Syrian air defence systems to include the S-3 00 system, which Moscow says is also capable of bringing down Tomahawk missiles or planes.
The four RAF Tornados that took part in Saturday's early morning raid did not enter Syrian space. They fired Storm Shadow rockets from the air close to the RAF base at Akrotiri where they are based, away from any air defence systems.
The Storm Shadow, which has been used by the RAF only a few periods, including in Libya, can be fired 300 miles from a target.
The RAF hit a former rocket base 15 miles west of Homs, where Syria is accused of keeping a stockpile of chemical weapons precursors. The other targets for the US and France were a scientific research centre on the outskirts of Damascus and a chemical equipment storage facility and command post.
The four Tornados have been in regular action in Syria and Iraq against Islamic State and will remain in Cyprus. The decision to fire the cruise missile from airplanes was partly because the UK does not have a submarine in the area.
The Russian defense ministry said ” a significant number” of the missiles had been shot down by an air defense system installed during the Soviet era. The ministry insisted the new defence system had not been used.
Claims from Syria and Russia about the increasing numbers of weapons shot down ranged from 13 to 79.
Although there had been speculation before the raid that Russia might retaliate against targets such as the RAF Cyprus base, the premise is that Moscow, having proclaimed the impact of the raid as minimal, is unlikely to respond militarily.
It could retaliate at a later date in another part of the world or through a deniable attack, such as a cyber-offensive operation.
Russia, as anxious as the UK to avoid escalation, did not respond to the raid with air defence systems around its own bases in Syria. The US said it did target any Russian-built air defence systems and had only made air defence systems being operated by Syria.
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