U.S. Cruise Missiles Struck Syrian Base With Impressive Precision
American munitions avoided Russian personnel and helicopters
Syria built Shayrat air base in the mid-1970s, applying lessons from the October 1973 Arab-Israeli War. Its purpose was to bolster air defenses against Israeli air strikes targeting the towns along the Syrian coast of the Mediterranean Sea.
In 1983 and 1984, locally-based units of the 50th Brigade received new MiG-23 and Su-22 fighter-bombers. Shayrat thus became one of potential staging points for air strikes on Israel.
Sharyat is the base that U.S. forces struck with nearly 60 Tomahawk cruise missiles on April 7, 2017, in retaliation for the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons against its own people. The munitions hit with extreme precision.
A Russian Ka-52 taking-off from Shayrat on the afternoon of April 7, 2017. Photo via A.T.
Today Shayrat is home to two units of the Syrian Arab Air Force. No. 675 Squadron, equipped with MiG-23MLDs, and No. 677 Squadron with Su-22M-4Ks. Since June 2012, these aircraft have flown thousands of air strikes on insurgent-held areas all over Syria, but especially in Idlib and Aleppo provinces. They’ve killed and maimed thousands of civilians and forced hundreds of thousands of Syrians to flee abroad.
Over the last two years, 80 percent of the combat sorties from Sharyat have targeted civilians in Idlib and Aleppo. The strikes continued even as Islamic State militants threatened nearby Tiyas air base in December 2016 and January 2017.
This Su-22M-3 of No. 677 Squadron has survived the late-night attacks on Shayrat. Photo via Yalla Souriya
From time to time, Shayrat also houses Su-24 fighter-bombers belonging to No. 819 Squadron and L-39 light strikers. In February and March 2016, Russian personnel resurfaced one of the runways. Moscow subsequently used the base for temporary deployments of its own attack helicopters.
On April 4, 2017, the commander of No. 677 Squadron — Col. Yusuf Hasuri — received written orders from the Ba’ath Party headquarters in Damascus to arm two of his Sukhois with bombs filled with chemical agents. Syrian intelligence believed that leaders from Syrian jihadist group Hayat Tahrir Ash Sham were planning on meeting in the town of Khan Sheykhoun.
The Su-22s took off at 6:30 in the morning — unusually early for a Syrian air operation — and took the population of Khan Sheykhoun by surprise. Local early-warning systems activated minutes after four chemical bombs released by Hasuri and his wingman hit a road inside the town.
Between 74 and 86 people — including dozens of children — died within minutes. As at least another 557 people were injured. An Su-24 launched from Tiyas air base at 9:04 that morning dropped four bombs on a field hospital treating the wounded.
U.S. president Donald Trump vowed to retaliate. This despite his policies limiting refugees and barring travel from Muslim-majority countries, his pledge to reduce American interventions abroad and his harsh criticism of then-president Barack Obama back in 2013, when Obama briefly considered launching strikes on Syria in retaliation for chemical attacks.
At 4:40 in the morning local time on April 7, the first of 59 BGM-109 Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles blasted away from the U.S. Navy destroyers USS Ross and USS Porter, both underway in the Mediterranean Sea near the Island of Crete. The missiles impacted a number of hardened aircraft shelters, the local ammunition depot — earlier containing chemical warheads — plus the fuel depot, maintenance workshops, the runway and several taxiways at Sharyat.
The raid killed seven Syrian military personnel and wounded 18 others. Among the victims of this attack was Col. Qallil Issa Ibrahim, commander of the 136th Regiment – the unit responsible for the air-defense of Shayrat.
Two Su-22s of No. 677 Squadron, wrecked inside their hardened aircraft shelters at Shayrat. Sputnik News photo
Photographs and videos released by the local and Russian media indicate that at least four Su-22s were destroyed, but up to five survived the strike untouched — all parked safely inside their hardened aircraft shelters. Combined, these aircraft represent all that was left of No. 677 Squadron. After five years of intensive combat operations, this unit was down to fewer than nine flyable aircraft.
Washington informed the government of the Russian Federation about the incoming strike early enough for the Russians to deploy one of their UAVs to monitor the attack. Indeed, the Ministry of Defense in Moscow hurried to publish the resulting video.
The Russian Ministry of Defense further claimed that only 23 out of 59 Tomahawks fired by the U.S. Navy reached their targets. How the Russians “know” this remains unclear, but one thing is certain. If no fewer than 26 BGM-109s failed to reach their targets, their wreckage would litter Syria. And regime and militant forces would likely be showing off ruined Tomahawks in propaganda videos.
The strike was executed with such precision that none of the Russian Kamov Ka-52 helicopters nor any of the Russian air force personnel deployed at Shayrat was harmed.