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Thursday, April 12, 2018

Military Movements after the April 2018 Chemical Weapons Attack


By Matti Suomenaro, Aaron Hesse, and the ISW Research Team

The U.S. has assessed that the Bashar al Assad regime is responsible for a chemical weapons attack in Damascus, Syria on April 7, 2018. The Assad-Russia-Iran coalition has been relocating its military assets and personnel in advance of an expected U.S.-led military operation intended to deter future use of chemical weapons. Iranian proxies are repositioning in order to mitigate the effects of a strike. The map accompanying the data below identifies key pro-regime military movements from April 8 – 12, 2018.


*Correction issued April 18, 2018: The map above has been updated since its original publication on April 12, 2018. The previous iteration of the map included ranges for two S-300 surface-to-air missile systems at Tartous and Latakia in Syria. ISW has changed the map to reflect the updated assessment that Russia likely had one S-300 system in Syria, based at Tartous, and that it withdrew that system in June 2017 (Russia deployed a new S-400 system to Masyaf in the months following this withdrawal). The previous iteration of this map also included a note regarding Russia’s deployment of multiple additional S-300 systems at unknown locations in Syria. ISW has removed this note based on a re-evaluation of reporting from 2016 on Russian deployments and the updated assessment regarding Russia’s current S-300 systems in Syria. Forthcoming ISW products will include updated assessments of Russia’s military posture in Syria and of the movement of the broader Russia-Iran-Bashar al Assad regime coalition’s movements since the April 14, 2018 U.S.-U.K.-France operation in Syria

Bashar al Assad Regime-Russia-Iran Coalition

Two Russian Su-24M ‘Fencer’ attack aircraft conducted several low-altitude passes in close proximity to the USS Donald Cook and the French frigate Aquitaine in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea on April 11. The Russian Navy conducted a firing drill off the Syrian coast in a likely attempt to deter U.S. and allied naval maneuvers near Syria on April 11.

Russia reportedly deployed four Tu-95MS ‘Bear’ and Tu-160M ‘Blackjack’ strategic bombers as well as an unspecified number of Il-78M tanker aircraft from the Engels Air Base in Southern Russia. Their final destination is unknown although they may be bound for Syria or the Hamedan Air Base in Western Iran. Russia previously targeted locations in Eastern Syria from the Engels Air Base. 

Russian and regime forces enhanced the air defenses around Syria’s capital, Damascus, where the regime conducted its chemical weapons attack on April 7. Pro-regime forces deployed short- to medium-range surface-to-air missiles, including six Russian Pantsir-S2s, to the Mezzeh Military Air Base and other sites in Damascus. Pro-regime officials also reportedly issued an alert to the Syrian Arab Army to evacuate personnel and assets from military bases across Syria.

Regime and Russian aircraft relocated closer to heavily-defended commercial airfields across Syria. Aircraft relocated from the Seen (Sayqal), Dumayr, Shayrat, and the T-4 (Tiyas) Air Bases to the Bassel al Assad International Airport in Latakia Province, the Nayrab Air Base outside Aleppo City, and the Damascus International Airport.

Iranian proxies, including Lebanese Hezbollah, reportedly began exiting Syria. Hezbollah reportedly relocated a number of fighters from Syria into Lebanon. Hezbollah and other Iranian proxies reportedly also entered Iraq from positions along the Syria-Iraq border, including Abu Kamal in Eastern Syria.

Unspecified pro-regime elements reportedly evacuated a branch of the Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Center (SSRC) in Jamraya near Damascus. The SSRC is a Syrian government body responsible for research and development on advanced weapons systems, including ballistic missiles and chemical weapons.

Yemen

The Iranian-backed al Houthi movement escalated its series of ballistic missile strikes targeting Saudi Arabia. The strikes fit a pre-existing escalatory pattern but also coincide with Saudi Arabia’s expressed support for a military response in Syria. The al Houthi movement targeted Riyadh and two other locations in Saudi Arabia with a ballistic missile and kamikaze drones on April 11. It remains unclear if Iran directed the escalation against Saudi Arabia.

United States

The U.S. Navy announced that the guided-missile destroyer USS Donald Cook departed from Larnaca, Cyprus to the Eastern Mediterranean Sea on April 9. The guided-missile destroyer USS Porter is also operating in the Navy’s Sixth Fleet area of operations. The U.S. Navy announced on April 11 that the USS Harry Truman Carrier Strike Group departed from Norfolk, Virginia for a regularly scheduled deployment in support of ongoing operations by the Navy’s Fifth and Sixth Fleets, the headquarters for which are located in Bahrain and Italy, respectively.  

France

The cruise missile-capable French frigate Aquitaine is stationed in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea.

United Kingdom

Britain reportedly ordered the deployment of an unspecified number of cruise missile-capable submarines to the Mediterranean Sea within range of Syria.

Turkey

Turkey maintains at least one warship stationed near Cyprus in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea. The Turkish Navy originally deployed to block offshore hydrocarbon exploration by Italy and France in the territorial waters of Cyprus on February 3, 2018.

Saudi Arabia

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman announced his “readiness to work with allies on any military response in Syria if needed” following a meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris on April 10.

The Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute contributed to the Yemen-related content in this publication.

America's Interests in Syria Beyond Deterring Chemical Weapons Use

By Jennifer Cafarella

Key Takeaway: President Donald Trump will likely authorize a campaign of strikes in Syria to deter future use of chemical weapons. The strikes would add credibility to American deterrence efforts worldwide by affirming American resolve to uphold stated “red lines”. They would fall short of halting the pro-Bashar al Assad regime war effort, however. The U.S. must do more in Syria to affect the war’s outcome, and must use tools beyond the military instrument. President Trump should use this opportunity to reset his entire Syria strategy. Vital American interests in Syria include: defeating al Qaeda and ISIS and replacing them with a viable and legitimate alternative; expelling Iranian military and proxy forces; limiting Iranian influence; facilitating the emergence of Sunni Arab armed forces and governing structures; bringing the war in Syria to a stable and enduring end that allows refugees to return; and de-escalating great power and regional competition in Syria that risks regional war and sets conditions for a great-power conflict.

President Trump will likely authorize a campaign of strikes against Syrian regime military targets in coming days in order to punish and deter chemical weapons use. American and British intelligence assessments have determined that the Assad regime is responsible for a chemical attack using a nerve agent against an opposition enclave in Douma on the outskirts of Damascus on April 7, 2018. President Trump first authorized a missile strike on a Syrian airfield in April 2017 after Syrian President Bashar al Assad conducted a similar attack using sarin gas on an opposition-held town. President Trump has reiterated his commitment to deterring future use and is now considering his military options.

A new round of strikes will most likely impose costs and degrade the regime’s capability to launch such attacks by damaging Assad’s remaining air force. President Trump’s 2017 strike destroyed twenty percent of Assad’s air force. President Trump may attempt to destroy Assad’s remaining air capabilities in addition to destroying his chemical weapons facilities. He may also strike targets that impose costs on Iran and Russia. He has publicly stated his intent to hold them accountable for supporting Assad’s crimes. Russian and Iranian forces collocate on many bases across Syria.

The strikes will reaffirm President Trump’s commitment to deterring chemical weapons use but will not solve the Syria problem. They are unlikely to alter the overall trajectory of the Syrian civil war and will not prevent Assad from continuing to slaughter his rebelling population with conventional munitions. They will not weaken Russian and Iranian resolve to continue supporting Assad, even if they destroy Assad’s air force. Alone, tactical military action is not a strategy.

The U.S. must do more and must use tools beyond the military instrument. President Trump should use this opportunity to reset his entire Syria strategy and remove the constraints on American action in Syria that he inherited from President Obama.

The U.S. has vital national security interests in Syria beyond deterring chemical weapons use. These include:
  1. Defeating al Qaeda, as well as ISIS, and facilitating the emergence of a viable and legitimate Sunni Arab leadership that will prevent the re-emergence of jihadist actors. 
  2. Expelling Iranian military forces and most of Iran’s proxy forces from Syria in order to secure American allies and partners in the region, to deny Iran access to Syrian economic resources, to reduce the regional sectarian conflict that is driving Sunni jihadist recruitment, and to constrain Russia’s ability to project force through Iranian basing; 
  3. Limiting Iranian influence over the Syrian government and territory; 
  4. Facilitating the emergence of a Sunni Arab armed force and governance structures that are: seen as legitimate by the Sunni Arab communities in Syria; willing and able to expel ISIS and al Qaeda and keep them out; and willing and able to serve as interlocutors for Syria’s rebelling Sunni community in negotiations with the pro-regime Alawite community and others; 
  5. Bringing the war in Syria to a stable and enduring end in a negotiated settlement acceptable to all sides that allows refugees to return in a manner that ensures jihadist actors do not gain sanctuary within a resettled and insecure population; and 
  6. De-escalating the competition among Turkey, Russia, Iran, and the Gulf States that risks regional war and is setting conditions for a great-power conflict in the Middle East. 
President Trump faces no easy decisions in Syria. Desirable options vanished over the eight years of vicious civil war. The cost and difficulty of acting in Syria will only continue to grow the longer the US tries to avoid these problems, however. The war continues to escalate. Russia, Iran, Assad, and Turkey are all attacking American forces and local partners in Syria. Israel and Iran are in an escalation pattern that could quickly become a regional war. The withdrawal of America’s limited forces in Syria would create a vacuum that leads to further escalation or enables American adversaries to grow stronger.

The growing international consensus behind striking Assad for chemical weapons use and holding his backers accountable provides an opportunity. President Trump should assert the leadership that the Obama administration shied away from and chart a new way forward in Syria.

Map: Russia and Iran in Southwest Syria

By ISW's Syria Team


Tuesday, April 10, 2018

April 2018 Syria Chemical Weapons Attack

ISW Senior Intelligence Planner Jennifer Cafarella answers three key questions in the aftermath of the Bashar al Assad regime-Iran-Russia coalition’s April 2018 campaign in Syria’s capital and the associated chemical weapons attack on civilians: read the Q&A on ISW's main website here.

Updated ISW map of the Assad-Iran-Russia posture and control of terrain assessments (for a PDF version, please visit ISW's main website):