The Al-Shayrat airbase, Tomahawks, and the Russian S-400 systems

Just a few days ago, US warships launched 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles against the airbase that hosted the Syrian Mig-23s that carried out the chemical attack in the Idlib province, according to reports[1]. Although no investigation followed in order to provide undisputed evidence of the attack, the strike aimed to destroy the Al-Shayrat airbase’s facilities, US officials said[2].The recent missile strike constitutes the first ever direct military act taken by the US administration since the outbreak of military clashes in Syrian soil, evolving to a bloody 6-year civil war.

The US Tomahawk Missiles

The missiles that were used during the US airstrike have been described as a modern, precise and powerful weapon that has the capabilities of delivering deadly blows to the enemy’s facilities even if they are protected by thick walls while zeroing collateral damages[3]. “Raytheon”, the company behind the Tomahawk missiles, has developed the weapon at a cost of US$1-1.5m. Tomahawks played a significant role in the intervention against the Libyan regime in 2011 and destroyed key strategic infrastructure[4]. The recent upgrades are going to further enhance the missile capabilities that can be found in the table on the left side.

The US position on the airstrike

However, this war involved certain proxy war characteristics and has been clearly used as a backdoor for terrorist insurgencies[5]. The US strike signifies an important intensification of the US military planning in the area, and could well be perceived by the Syrian Arab Republic’s authorities as an act of war against a sovereign state.US President Donald Trump’s judgment of the situation and the eventual airstrike against Syria has underlined a rather significant alteration in his own stated position on the dilemma over US involvement against the president of the Syrian Arab Republic, Bashar Al-Assad. It is essential to recap President Trump’s initial position on the Syrian conflict which was contrary to invading or even engaging by military means against the Syrian president[6]. Nonetheless, the recent chemical attack that was said to be carried out by the Syrian regime’s forces changed the US administration’s view on a potential engagement, well after several sensitive the release of images and videos depicting dozens of people killed by sarin gas. At first, this illustrates a change of policy compared to the red lines that the Obama administration had employed but did not keep on. The second sign of US policy can be translated as a flexibility doctrine that Donald Trump is likely to unfold[7]. However, the US Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson was swift to neatly highlight that this course of action did not underline any shift in US policy regarding Syria[8]. Tillerson, though, did stress that his government was prepared to follow any steps that would guarantee that the Syrian regime would not cross any other red lines imposed by the US.

The Russian reaction

Reports from Moscow underlined that the implications for the future US-Russia relations on the ground would definitely depend on Washington’s next moves and whether this missile strike was a sole event, as retaliation for the chemical attack in Idlib. Russia constitutes a central advocate of the Bassad administration and has evolved to the key determinant of the Syrian crisis. The Russian Major General Igor Konanshenkov highlighted the potential consequences in the relations between the two world powers that the airstrike may have[9]. In addition, he underlined that the Russian army would increase its readiness and enhance the Syrian anti-aircraft and air-defense systems. As a result, he stated that the Syrian army will gain strengthened capabilities in protecting its key infrastructure against any potential threats.

The next step that the Russian Federation took emphasizes a realist and diplomatic approach that is expected to criminalize and condemn the US missile assault. Russia’s Representative to the United Nations, Mr. Vladimir Safronov urged that the airstrikes could trigger a grim diplomatic environment in the Syrian conflict that would lead to further implications to the wider region, affecting regional and global stability[10]. The realist account that Mark Galleoti employs to analyze the Russian reaction is probably the one that should be further expected to be followed by the Russian President Vladimir Putin. The decision to send the new-built frigate ‘Admiral Grigorovich’, capable of air defense, naval assault, and key-strikes operations, is a decision that lays a realist framework to a potential escalation[11]. Furthermore, according to Matthew Schmidt who has been following Russian affairs and is employed as an assistant professor of national security at the New Haven University, the Russian administration will likely push forward a pressing military policy in case the US initiate new military operations against the Syrian regime[12].

S-400 Triumph - Was the most advanced Russian A/A system even activated?


Last but not least, there is a growing discussion whether the probably most cutting-edge air defense systems worldwide were activated. The S-400 missile systems that have been deployed to supplement the already existing S-300 did not interrupt any of the fired missiles originating from the US Navy destroyers[13]. This debate is further complemented by the argument of the US that they informed the Russian command in Syria prior the attack took place early Friday. The Russian military has enhanced the air defense capabilities of the Syrian airbases in Hmeymim, Latakia and Tartus that host Russian fighter and bombing jets. At this point, Mark Galeotti conveys his thoughts over the conditions that did not lead to the activation of the missile system that was absolutely capable of taking down the Tomahawk missiles[14]. What can be really understood is that a possible reaction of such scale by the Russians could spark an unprecedented crisis on the Syrian conflict that would inevitably affect international peace, given that it would be the first time that Russia would engage the US. Therefore, within the framework of a realist lens, it is safe to conclude that the US gained momentum over the Russians for a short period, however the realist game has not even come to an end and the next moves of the Russian-US chess board in Syria are likely to be the ones that determine the future of the whole region.



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