Air Strikes Targeting Syrian Military Sites Appear To Have Begun (Live Updating)

A day after The War Zone reported on a horrendous gas attack on Syrians in the rebel-held town of Douma, located on the eastern outskirts of the Syrian capital of Damascus, reports are flooding in of an air battle now occurring over the western part of the country. It appears that an attack on military targets associated with the Assad regime has begun, although what party is executing those strikes remains unclear.

These reports come just hours after President Trump posted this tweet:

Large explosions, sonic booms, and surface-to-air missile launches have been reported in western Syria, with even more reports pointing to a series of strikes concentrated on T4 (Tiyas) airbase in the Homs. This is the same base that Israel struck in retaliation to an Iranian-built drone violating Israeli airspace in February. The base is a primary operating site for the Syrian Air Force and Iran’s Quds Force and their proxies.

Once again, we still can’t be certain that the U.S. is initiating these strikes at this time. Israel is another likely party and could be acting so that key hardware is not removed from Syrian sites before a U.S. strike occurs, or for other reasons unknown at this time. Even destroying Syria’s chemical weapons capabilities on their own accord makes sense for Israel. 

We are live updating this post minute-by-minute as more information comes available. 

Update: 7:17pm PST—

Syrian state news reporting that there was indeed an attack on Tiyas Air Base. In addition, it says that Syrian air defense units engaged eight cruise missiles during the onslaught.

U.S. officials are denying that this attack was by American forces. But sure would help if that runway was put out of action so the U.S. could wipe the base clean of its Su-24s and other combat aircraft.

Update: 7:33pm PST—

It’s also worth remembering that France has stated that it would also strike at regime-controlled targets if another gas attack occurred. We discussed this in a recent piece about the fighting in East Ghouta, stating:

France has threatened to strike Assad’s forces if they do not de-escalate, and Russian claims the U.S. is gearing up to do the same, especially among accusations of continued use of chemical weapons by Assad on his own people. Russia says it will respond in kind against U.S. interests if Washington launches an attack. France has also warned its journalists to leave the country immediately and to not plan future trips. French President Emmanuel Macron stated the following on Friday:

“The day we, particularly in tandem with our American partners, have irrefutable proof that the red line has been crossed—namely, through the use of chemical weapons to lethal—we will do what the Americans did more than a few months ago now; we would put ourselves in a position to proceed with targeted strikes.”

Update: 7:38pm PST—

‘Matthew’ in our amazing comments section just pointed out this highly relevant tweet posted earlier today:

U.S. continues to deny involvement in this set of strikes, which could be totally true. But we also have to remember that if indeed these strikes were launched by the U.S., especially by an American submarine in the Mediterranean, claiming them immediately could risk the security of that submarine until it can move away from the area. Other operational security issues also apply to certain aircraft and ship operations as well, especially considering Russian threats. 

Also, Israel could be happily doing the Pentagon’s work here to see some degree as the Israeli Defense Forces have basically identified T4 as a major Iranian forward operating location in Syria. 

Update: 7:52pm PST—

Danny Makki has an interesting twitter thread going about the attack. We can’t confirm it at this time but it’s worth looking at. In it he states 20 missiles were fired at the base, eight of which were shot down. Drone facilities and maintenance facilities were targeted. Raid sirens sounded five minutes before the attack as the base was on high alert. It’s worth noting that advanced and even hard to detect drones would pose an additional threat to Israel if chemical weapons are available in the country.

Update: 11:21pm PST—

It’s somewhat amazing how little there is in terms of ‘big’ information to report over three hours since our last update. Multiple sources state 14 people died in the attack, including Iranian personnel operating out of the base. Israel still has not responded to inquiries about the strikes. Russia hasn’t commented on them yet either. 

I think it’s worth putting this up as it is interesting and does have to do with the web of geopolitical volatility currently surrounding chemical weapons, Syria, and Russia:

I have been asked about American military movements in the vicinity of Syria in recent hours. Some of our good aircraft tracking friends have noticed a few things. Unsurprisingly, an RC-135 Rivet Joint is moving into the area likely to collect electronic intelligence on Syria. The Rivet Joint can gather communications intelligence as well as work to build-up a real-time electronic order of battle now that Syria’s air defense network, along with Russia’s air defense systems in the country, are on high alert. This information will be critical when it comes to building a mission plan to strike at targets in the country and is especially important for route planning for aircraft and/or cruise missiles. 

There are also multiple tankers working over the Mediterranean. KC-135s are somewhat common in the area, but KC-10s are less so: 

An emergency U.N. Security Council meeting is planned for tomorrow. At this point, a U.S. strike is unlikely to occur until after that meeting. Considering France is now likely to be involved in any operation, at least in some form (SCALP EG and APACHE cruise missile attacks perhaps), and possibly other countries as well following the UNSC meeting, additional planning could take many hours or even a number of days. 

Update: 1:26am PST—

Multiple outlets report that the Russian MoD has stated Israel executed the attack last evening on Syria’s Tiyas Air Base near Homs. According to Haaretz:

“The Russian military said on Monday that two Israeli F-15 war planes had carried out strikes on a Syrian air base near Homs on Sunday, the Interfax news agency reported. 

Interfax cited the Russian Defense Ministry as saying the Israeli war planes had carried out the strikes from Lebanese air space. The Russian ministry said that Syrian air defense systems had shot down five of eight missiles fired, while the other three landed in the western part of the base.”

Israel has weapons that are especially capable of highly precise standoff attacks, most notably Delilah air-launched cruise missiles.   

Update: 7:52am PST—

Lebanon has officially confirmed multiple airspace breaches by Israeli aircraft overnight:

Iran, which just lost multiple people at T-4 airfield, has declared the gas attack in Douma a conspiracy:

Iran has formally named four of its personnel who died in the attack.

Russia is also making the case that the gas attack was fabricated:

As for the UK’s position on a potential response to the gas attack, apparently all options are on the table, at least after an investigation: 

“The Foreign Secretary underlined the urgent need to investigate what had happened in Douma and to ensure a strong and robust international response,” the Foreign Office said in a statement.

“They agreed that today’s meeting of the United Nations Security Council in New York would be an important next step in determining the international response and that a full range of options should be on the table.”

Although it is not a surprise, especially considering the confliction issues that could occur if the U.S. had struck at the same time, Israel appears to have given the U.S. notice of their intent to strike Syria prior to last night’s missile strike. Russia, on the other hand, claims it wasn’t alerted in advance, which would make sense considering the use of standoff weaponry. At the same time, some independent sources say that the Russians did know about the impending attack and left the base quietly without alerting the Iranians.

A principals meeting of the White House National Security Council was held this morning which likely worked to further refine and update formal recommendations to President Trump as to how to respond to the gas attack. 

Update: 8:55pm PST—

There is a lot of confusion on social media and other places online about the weapons Israel possibly used in the attack. The base may have been outside the range of Popeye missiles which pack a large warhead, but Delilahs, like their Popeye cousins, can fly into a hardened aircraft shelter before detonating via man-in-the-loop control. This pinpoint accuracy can give their much smaller warhead an advantage over missiles with much larger ones that don’t offer this sort of terminal guidance. Also, this was not a strike to decimate an airfield. It was a highly targeted attack likely focusing on Iran’s ability to generate drone sorties and to support its local activities in relation to Hezbollah. 

We don’t know what weapons were used for sure in this operation, but the biggest warhead is not always the best option, and in this case, range was an issue.

An image prior to an IAF attack on Tiyas Air Base (T-4) in February. Note there is plenty of infrastructure that is not hardened to go after, most notably Iranian drone operations. But still, the Delilah cruise missile can literally fly inside hardened aircraft shelters or hit fortified structures at their most vulnerable points. , IDF

As for what assets the U.S. could use already in the region for a series of near-term strikes—at least beyond forward-based tactical air power—USS Donald Cook, an Arleigh Burke class destroyer, has left Cyprus and is right there if the orders come. We don’t know exactly what is lurking under the water as well. 

As we have discussed at great length in the past, if another U.S. strike is launched against Assad’s military, it should be substantial enough that Assad loses something near and dear in the process. This can be a major military capability like large portions of his upgraded air defense network—which would leave him vulnerable to follow-on strikes—or entire airfields and the aircraft based there or even some of the regime’s ‘royal’ infrastructure. Tomahawk cruise missiles cannot accomplish some of these tasks and have especially limited abilities to destroy hardened infrastructure and runways.  

Update: 10am PST—

Here are President Trump’s comments to the press on Syria:

Secretary of Defense James Mattis has said he won’t rule anything out when it comes to action against Syria and added:

“The first thing we have to look at is why are chemical weapons still being used at all when Russia was the framework guarantor of removing all the chemical weapons.”

Here is SAMS’ updated tally of deaths it says were caused by the gas attack:

Our coverage of this ongoing crisis can be found here going forward. 

Contact the author: