Flights From Syrian Base Fell Sharply After U.S. Strike
American missiles walloped Shayrat
Ever since U.S. President Donald Trump ordered two Navy warships to launch 59 BGM-109 Tomahawk missiles at the Shayrat Air Base in Syria in the pre-dawn hours of April 7, 2017, there is no end to the controversy over the background and outcome of the operation.
Misinformation abounds, for reasons which are common in every armed conflict. There are stark differences between “public perception” and “military realities.” The former is strongly shaped by the propaganda machinery of every involved party, while the latter is reserved for intelligence and military services, and usually outside of the public reach entirely.
Thanks to social media, it is now easier separate the two.
In the case of the Tomahawk strike on Shayrat, the contradiction between perception and reality immediately arose over the purpose of the strike. According to U.S. Central Command, which oversees U.S. military forces in the Middle East, the missile attack was to degrade Syria’s “capability to perform chemical attacks.”
Surely enough, two Syrian Arab Air Force Su-22s of the Shayrat-based No. 677 Squadron carried out the April 4 chemical attack on Khan Sheyhkhoun, which killed around 90 civilians and wounded more than 600. Seemingly, these aircraft dropped Russian-made OBAS-250-235 bombs, made of plastic and filled with Sarin.
However, these two sorties were an exception from the rule. Most of dozens of coordinated chemical attacks over the last six months involved Mil Mi-8 and Mi-17 helicopters operated by the 63rd Helicopter Brigade deployed at Hama and as-Safira air bases north of Shayrat. Either U.S. intelligence does not know this, or has opted not to mention it.
Shayrat is also not known as a base where the regime stored chemical weapons on a regular basis. The White House alleges Syrian personnel “historically associated” with the country’s chemical weapons program arrived at Shayrat in late March to help prepare the attack, a senior administration official told reporters on April 11.
A few hours after the Tomahawk strike on Shayrat, the Russian Ministry of Defense boasted about the “low efficiency” of this attack, stressing that “only 23 Tomahawk Missiles out of 59 reached the Syrian airfield.” These statements were quickly revealed to be falsehoods.
Later the same day, independent analysis based on commercial satellite photographs found that at least 44 different objects at Shayrat were hit, including 15 hardened aircraft shelters, 10 ammunition depots, seven workshops and seven fuel depots—several of them two times—for a total of up to 58 direct hits.
Indeed, contrary to what might be expected if no fewer than 25 missiles were jammed, shot down or malfunctioned while underway to their target—as the Russian military implies—Syrian social media produced only one image of a Tomahawk which crashed near the village of Karto, outside Tartous, on the morning of April 7.
During the following few hours, Russian and Syrian T.V. teams rushed to report from the wrecked air base. The channel Russia-1 was the first to air its report from reporter Evgeniy Poddubnyy.
Poddubnyy stressed that the aircraft based at Shayrat “attacked the positions of the so-called Islamic State that operate in the province.” He also accused Washington of “supporting the fanatics of the pseudo-Caliphate” through its actions.
This could be hardly more distant from the truth. Over the last six months, and with few exceptions from December 2016 to January 2017, Shayrat-based fighter-bombers were almost exclusively bombing insurgents in Idlib and western Aleppo governorates. Most of air strikes directed at the Islamic State in the Palmyra area are flown by fighter-bombers from Tiyas—or “T-4”—air base further east.
Although clearly showing about a dozen of aircraft destroyed while parked inside hardened aircraft shelters from the distance, Poddubnyy went on to emphasize “undamaged aircraft and ammunition in hangars and open areas”—while pointing at only one Su-22M-4K, serial number 3233.
His conclusion that “American missiles did not hit the main object of the base” was another distortion, easily evident according to one of Syrian officers he interviewed, who pointed out hits on fuel and lubricant depots, ammunition dumps in the south and southeastern parts of the air base, and “several MiG-23 aircraft.”
Reporters from ANNA News were next on the scene, and—certainly enough—they went to great lengths to stress that the U.S. strike failed to cause any serious damage – even when filmed directly in front of the wreckage of three or four MiG-23s and five Su-22s.
The following morning, Russian media outlets continued in same style.
Russia-1 boasted that Shayrat was back in action and extensively covered the take-offs of three Su-22M-4Ks—serial numbers 3233, 3235 and 3237.
The fact that these three take-offs—which took place at 10:45, 11:11 and 13:50—remained the only ones launched from Shayrat that day, and that ever since the missile strike not a single MiG-23 took off from this base, remains entirely ignored by the Russian media.
When out of other arguments, and while ignoring those Russians who questioned why the much-famed S-400 Triumf surface-to-air missiles based south of Latakia failed to shot down even a single U.S. missile, Russia’s state media then questioned the legitimacy of the strike on Shayrat.
The Su-22M-4K, serial number 3235, at Shayrat on April 8, 2017. Photo via Mikhail Voskresenskiy
This despite the fact that the Resolution 2118 of the U.N. Security Council—issued with Moscow’s approval—granted clear permission for “all members of the U.N.” to “take action by air, sea, or land forces as may be necessary to maintain or restore international peace and security” in event that the Syrian Arab Republic makes use of chemical weapons again.
Of course, one is left to wonder why the Obama administration ignored dozens of following cases in which Syrian regime deployed chemical weapons, and why the Trump administration also ignored them until April 2017. But that issue is outside the strictly military-related part of this affair.
Finally, there is only one way to gauge the effectiveness of the missile strike on Shayrat—the number of sorties the Syrian air force is launching from the base compared to before.
Monitoring with help of first-hand sources, who provided information of condition of anonymity, and social media— including the Sentry Syria service—leaves no doubts as to the effectiveness of the U.S. strike. In the days before the missile strike, the Syrian air force conducted between 10 and 20 take-offs by MiG-23s and Su-22s from Shayrat every day.
Since the Tomahawks wrecked Shayrat, this number dropped to between three and six take-offs by Su-22s only. Even four days since the attack, not one of the MiG-23s or L-39s formerly based at Shayrat has been seen again.