Russia and the West clash over what was struck, and where
The missile strikes on Syria in the early hours of April 14 triggered an immediate discussion over what exactly was targeted.
The American, British, and French governments insisted that they had only targeted chemical weapons facilities. The Russian Ministry of Defense said that it had registered attacks on a number of air bases, including Damascus International Airport, and that Syrian air defenses had intercepted over two thirds of the missiles.
The contradictory claims painted a stark example of the potential for disinformation in an information vacuum, and the clash of narratives and information, which overlies the clash of arms.
American, French, and British claims were broadly consistent with one another. The most detailed statement came from the United States Department of Defense, in a briefing given on April 14, and livestreamed.
.@ChiefPenSpox Dana W. White and Marine Lt. Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., director, Joint Staff, provide an update … https://t.co/qi7UZieaJM
— Department of Defense 🇺🇸 (@DeptofDefense) April 14, 2018
According to briefer Lt. Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie, director of the Joint Staff, the United States, French, and UK forces struck three targets: a chemical weapons research facility at Barzah, in the Damascus area, and two chemical weapons storage facilities at Him Shinshar, west of Homs.
McKenzie broke down the attack in some detail (from timestamp 5:40 in the video):
- 57 U.S. Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles (TLAM) aimed at Barzah;
- 19 U.S. Joint Air-Surface Stand-off Missiles (JASSM) aimed at Barzah;
- Nine U.S. TLAMs aimed at the Him Shinshar storage site;
- Eight British Storm Shadow missiles aimed at the Him Shinshar storage site;
- Three French naval cruise missiles aimed at the Him Shinshar storage site;
- Two French SCALP land-attack cruise missiles aimed at the Him Shinshar storage site;
- Seven SCALP missiles against the Him Shinshar bunker facility.
This totals 105 weapons against three targets, all linked to the production and storage of chemical weapons. According to McKenzie, “none of the aircraft or missiles were successfully engaged” by Syrian air defenses.
McKenzie also showed before-and-after slides of the strikes, which we reproduce below from screenshots of his briefing.
Finally, McKenzie listed the assets used to launch the strikes:
- U.S. frigate USS Monterey;
- U.S. destroyer USS Laboon;
- U.S. destroyer USS Higgins;
- French frigate FS Languedoc;
- U.S. submarine USS John Warner;
- Two U.S. B-1 Lancer bombers;
- Unspecified number of British Tornado and Typhoon aircraft;
- Unspecified number of French Rafale and Mirage aircraft.
The British Ministry of Defence issued a separate statement detailing its contribution to the joint operation. According to this report, four Tornado GR4 ground-attack aircraft launched an unspecified number of Storm Shadow missiles at a target 15 miles west of Homs.
This tallies with the U.S. description of eight Storm Shadows launched by British Tornadoes at Him Shinshar.
A separate statement by French Defense Minister Florence Parly described strikes on “the main research center” for Syria’s chemical weapons program and “two important production sites.” She said that the cruise missiles had been fired from French frigates in the Mediterranean, and by French aircraft.
This statement broadly matched the U.S. statement on the number of targets struck and the weapons and platforms used. However, it disagreed with the U.S. statement on the precise nature of the targets: the U.S. listed one research site, a storage site and a bunker, while the French spoke of one research site and two production sites.
The reason for this discrepancy is unclear.
The Russian Ministry of Defence also held a briefing on April 14 to give its assessment of the strikes. Colonel General Sergei Rudskoy, the head of the Russian General Staff’s Main Operations Directorate, said that Russian air defenses in the region “located and controlled all naval and air launches made by the USA and UK.” According to Rudskoy, Russian air defenses did not register any French launches.
Rudskoy’s description of the assets used in the attack showed some overlap with that provided by the Americans:
- 103 cruise missiles;
- B-1 bombers;
- British Tornadoes firing SCALP missiles (Storm Shadow is the UK variant of SCALP);
- USS Laboon;
- USS Monterey.
Rudskoy claimed that the B-1 bombers launched GBU-38 bombs, rather than JASSMs. He also claimed that U.S. F-15 and F-16 aircraft launched air-to-surface missiles of an unspecified type.
Far more importantly, Rudskoy presented a radically different picture of both the targets of the strikes, and their impacts.
According to his version, 101 attacking missiles targeted eight different sites:
- Damascus International Airport — four missiles;
- al-Dumayr airfield— 12 missiles;
- Blai airfield — 18 missiles;
- Shayrat airfield — 12 missiles;
- Mazzeh airfield — nine missiles;
- Homs airfield — 16 missiles;
- “facilities near” Barzah and Jaramana, both suburbs of Damascus — 30 missiles.
According to Rudskoy’s account, Syrian air defenses shot down 71 of the missiles, including all those targeting the Damascus, al-Dumayr, Blai and Shayrat air bases. According to media reports, Syrian commentators claimed that the country intercepted a number of missiles, with the exact figure ranging from 13 to “most of them.”
These contradictions paint a wholly different picture of the strikes, broadening their scope beyond suspected chemical weapons sites, and greatly reducing their success rate.
Open source evidence
Some open source evidence has verified certain claims. Analysts have identified the three locations of the satellite imagery provided by the U.S. briefing.
— Jake Godin (@JakeGodin) April 14, 2018
Looking at the three different target sites called out by DoD & trying to get a sense what the planning math looked like to land at 105 missiles on these. pic.twitter.com/lCLoaJk1oF
— Veli-Pekka Kivimäki (@vpkivimaki) April 14, 2018
These place the Barzah strike at 33.558419, 36.316080, the Him Shinshar storage site at 34.681473, 36.466262 and the Him Shinshar bunker at 34.695209, 36.537523. The latter sites are 14 miles west of Homs, in line with the UK claim.
These findings tend to corroborate the locations the strikes as reported by the United States, but do not give us information on the reported interceptions, nor on strikes on other areas, nor on the uses to which the locations were put.
Less evidence of intercepted strikes, and strikes on airfields, was forthcoming. As is usual on such occasions, a number of videos claiming to show interceptions were in fact recycled from other conflicts, as identified by open source researcher Christiaan Triebert.
This video is being shared as showing air defences firing at today's incoming #SyriaStrikes in Damascus, but guess what? That's not the case — the footage shows Saudi Patriot missiles intercepting an apparent Houthi missile over Riyadh last month. https://t.co/KYBIP1k7Jn pic.twitter.com/fPKi0dgAVe
— Christiaan Triebert (@trbrtc) April 14, 2018
Syrian regime supporter Nardeep Pujji (@AWAKEALERT) tweeted an image which claimed to be of an intercepted TLAM over Damascus.
Other users disputed the identification of a Tomahawk part.
Surface to air missle not a tomahawk style
— Erik Sundberg (@erikpsundberg) April 14, 2018
Fresh satellite imagery or other open sources may give more indication of whether the sites listed by Russia were, indeed, targeted.
If strikes only hit sites associated with the recent use of chemical weapons by Assad, then the event can hardly be understood as a significant escalation within the seven-year conflict. The act, alone, is also unlikely to change Assad’s broader pattern of behavior or reverse his trend of violence against civilians.
@DFRLab will continue to monitor developments.
This post was updated on April 15 to correct the spelling of Him Shinshar and the coordinates of the second Him Shinshar site in the caption to the image.
Ben Nimmo is Senior Fellow for Information Defense at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (@DFRLab).
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