Russia Can’t Safeguard Syria against Next US Missile Strike
Russian President Vladimir Putin is cannily exploiting the threat of another US missile attack on an Assad regime target, after 59 Tomahawks struck Syria’s Al Shayrat airfield on April 7, to deepen the Syrian dictator’s dependence on Moscow.
He promised the Syrian dictator extra security against another US reprisal which President Donald Trump has pledged for the next chemical attack.
But can Putin deliver?
DEBKA Weekly’s Middle East sources track the events leading up to this dilemma.
On April 21, US Secretary of State James Mattis confirmed during a visit to Tel Aviv that Syria possessed additional chemical weapons after their use against civilians triggered the US Tomahawk missile strike. Mattis said that the Syria had dispersed its remaining aircraft across the country.
He did not disclose their new locations, but what he said negated earlier claims on April 19 that the entire Syrian air force had taken shelter against further US attacks under the wing of the Russian command at the Hmemeim air base in Latakia.
Middle East watchers familiar with Syrian and Russian air operations never believed this claim, aware that Hmeimim doesn’t have the space to accommodate the two air fleets. They understood the misleading announcement to mean that the two allies were locked in deep discussions on how to upgrade Syria’s air defenses and had not yet decided how or when to do this.
The matter is urgent because the Syrian and Russian commanders are set on dislodging the strong rebel presence in the northern Syrian province of Idlib, many of them with close Islamist ties. The chemical assault which provoked American retaliation targeted Khan Sheikhoun, which is on the fringes of rebel-held territory. The Syrian army is not currently up to grappling with their resistance by conventional means of warfare and will inevitably resort to more chemical warfare. Therefore, if Trump lives up to his pledge, the Assad regime is in for more American punishment.
A foretaste came on April 24, when US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin announced a new round of US sanctions on 271 scientists, army officers and businesspersons employed in President Bashar Assad’s chemical weapons manufacture and use. This second US retaliatory punch for the Syrian government’s targeting of civilians with a poison substance was the biggest round of sanctions America had ever imposed on foreign entities.
Vladimir Putin meanwhile played on Bashar Assad’s vulnerability for more sway over his client. He planted a suggestion to reporters on April 11 that the US was planning to frame Syrian President Assad by a “false flag” attack on a suburb of Damascus.
On April 21, defense sources in Moscow said reassuringly that Russia was ready to provide Syria with the air defense systems it needs to withstand another US missile attack.
This was confirmed by Russian Senator Viktor Ozerov chairman of the Russian upper house defense and security committee, after Assad told an interviewer that his government is interested in Russian next-generation, air defense systems. The Syrian ruler revealed that more than half of his army’s air defense weapons had been destroyed by “terrorists” – a hint at the US and Israel – and the supply of additional air defense systems was in negotiation with Moscow.
The necessary quantity can be supplied on a priority base, Ozerov agreed, without overburdening Russia’s defense industry. But when asked to comment on the two statements, the Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov, merely declined to comment on “such issues.”
It turns out that the Russian promises were without substance.
Putin has no intention of letting Assad have advanced air defense weapons like the top-line S-400 to ward off another US attack, because, very simply, as DEBKA Weekly’s military and intelligence sources have discovered, he does not have them to spare from Russia’s emergency military reserve stocks. And he
cannot afford to draw them off Russia’s other fronts in the Ukraine and the Baltic Sea. Another front has arisen since the Korean crisis erupted. Russia needs the missiles to back the troops he has massed along the 18km Russian-North Korean border. So for the time being, the Russian cupboard is bare for Bashar Assad.