In the wake of a US missile strike that seriously crippled its air-force,Syria is moving its remaining planes to an airfield adjacent to a Russian airbase. Despite rising tensions with Russia, the US remains committed to preventing further chemical attacks by the Syrian government.
Two defense officials told CNN the Syrian military began moving its aircraft to the air base at Bassel Al-Assad International Airport shortly after the US missile strike on the Sharat air base on April 6. The airport adjacent to the Khmeimim Air Base, formerly a Syrian airbase but currently most of Russia’s air assets are located there. The Russian base is protected by advanced anti-aircraft systems which would presumably offer protection to the nearby Syrian airbase, making the US reluctant to initiate another strike.
The US used 59 Tomahawk missiles to destroy 24 warplanes in the attack, which is estimated to be 20 percent of Syria’s fixed wing aircraft.
“The Syrian Air Force is not in good shape. It’s been worn down by years of combat plus some … significant maintenance problems,” Secretary of Defense General James Mattis told reporters at the Pentagon on Wednesday.
The US missile-strike came in response to a sarin nerve gas attack Syrian President Bashar al-Assad launched from Sharat air base, killing approximately 70 civilians. Though Russian personnel were on the Syrian base, the US warned Russia before the attack. 14 Syrians were killed in the US missile attack but no Russian casualties were reported.
The attack created tensions between the US and Russia, which supports the regime of Assad. Assad has been fighting a civil war for six years which has killed over 300,000 Syrians. Assad denied using chemical weapons, and Russia condemned the US missile strike. Despite Assad’s claims, the director general for the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, Ambassador Ahmet Üzümcü, said Wednesday that analysis of samples from victims of the Khan Sheikhoun attack showed “incontrovertible” results that “sarin or a sarin-like substance” was used in the attack.
Syria was required to turn over all of its chemical weapons in 2014 following an agreement brokered by former President Barack Obama. Despite assertions by Obama and his Secretary of State, John Kerry, that Syria had relinquished “100 percent” of its chemical weapons, experts now claim that tons of dangerous weapons remain in secretly stockpiles.
President Trump was reluctant to become involved in the Syrian conflict, but now threatens continued action if Assad continues to use chemical weapons. General Mattis affirmed this at the press conference.
“The Syrian regime should think long and hard before it again acts so recklessly in violation of international law against the use of chemical weapons,” Mattis said, later adding that “if they use chemical weapons, they are going to pay a very, very stiff price.”