Moscow acted swiftly to boost its ties with Tehran and beef up the Syrian military in reaction to the US-British-French surgical missile strike on Syria’s chemical sites on Saturday, April 12. DEBKAfile’s analysts report that when Russian and Iranian officials warned of “consequences,” they were already on the move:
- Saturday morning, while cruise missiles rained down on Syrian chemical sites, a Syrian-Hizballah force, backed by Russian mercenaries, renewed their push to cross the Euphrates River and snatch from US control the east Syrian Konok gas and Al-Umar oil fields. There were initial clashes with the US-backed Syrian Democratic Army (SDF). Two days earlier, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s close adviser Ali Akbar Velyati pointed the way when he told a news conference in Damascus: East of the Euphrates is “a very important area. We hope big steps will be taken in order to liberate this area and expel the occupying Americans.”
- While media reports abounded about Moscow’s non-reprisal for the US-led attack, Moscow was quietly getting ready to confront the US and its allies. Heavy Russian strategic Tu-95 and Tu-22M bombers were deployed Thursday to air bases in Iran, thereby cutting their flying time to Syria and Iraq by at least four hours; and Russian freighters were transiting the Bosporus Straits Friday and Saturday in full sight of intelligence surveillance, laden with new military equipment for the Syrian army.
- US care in limiting its operation essentially to three sites, where the Bashar Assad‘s army was clandestinely making and stockpiling chemical weapons, served Moscow’s purpose
- Assad still retains substantial quantities of poison weapons even after these sites were struck by more than 100 missiles. He is still capable of using them again and will not be deterred from doing so if he thinks his regime is in danger.
- The US-led operation was beset by controversy between President Donald Trump and his defense secretary, James Mattis. Had it been up to Mattis, it would not have been launched. The delay derived from the arguments against the strike put forward by the Defense Secretary and US army chiefs led by Gen. Joseph Danford, Chairman of the Joint chiefs of Staff. They predicted that Russia and Iran would not take the missile assault lying down and a single single-dimensional strike would be the catalyst for a full-scale US war with Russia on Syrian soil. Mattis tried to put the brakes on the operation on Saturday morning by calling it “a one-time shot.” But then, President Trump stated in a TV speech: “We are prepared to sustain this response until the Syrian regime stops its use of prohibited chemical agents.”
- Trump is perfectly capable of sacking Mattis with the same lack of ceremony with which he let Secretary of State Rex Tillerson go last month. But this won’t resolve his differences with the generals regarding the scope of US military action in Syria. He will count on close support from Tillerson’s successor at State, Mike Pompeo, and his new national security adviser John Bolton, for widening the US military action in Syria into further strikes against the Assad regime.
- Whereas the Trump administration took care to keep the multilateral attack in Syria well-defined to chemical targets, the Russians never promised to limit their response. They may well go for a major military success in Syria so as to obliterate the impact of the US-led assault. The Russian information machine was already at work before noon on Saturday, when Col. Gen. Sergei Rudskoi of the Russian military’s General Staff maintained that Syria’s Russian-made air defense systems downed 71 out of 103 missiles launched by the US and allies in Syria, with the help of monitoring by “Russian air defense assets” – but without the direct engagement of any Russian missiles. This was a message to Washington that a fresh wave of strikes in Syria would encounter direct Russian engagement. The Russian general also claimed that “only minor damage” was caused by the first wave.
- Russian Defense officials also threatened that Russia would resume discussions with Syria and other countries over the sale of modern S-300 air defense systems to protect against future US strikes.