U.S. attack on Syria explained: Warship ruses, new weapons, and why Trump chose to act

(National SentinelTactics: The U.S. and its French and British allies used a combination of feints, ruses, and new missiles to level Syrian chemical weapons facilities on Saturday.

At the same time, the use of chemical weapons against Syrian rebels, allegedly by Syrian President Bashar Assad, was not the only thing that spurred President Donald J. Trump and European allies to act, Bloomberg Politics reports.

The tactics

Reports last week, including in this publication, noted that U.S. warships were gathering off the waters of Syria ahead of yesterday’s strike, in which more than 100 missiles were fired at three Syrian targets.

The flotilla included the destroyers USS Donald Cook and USS Winston Churchill, each of which carried 90 Tomahawk cruise missiles. But in the end, according to sources that spoke with Bloomberg, neither of those ships fired a shot:

Instead, according to a person familiar with White House war planning, they were part of a plan to distract Russia and its Syrian ally from an assault Assad’s government could do little to defend itself against.

It worked. Pentagon officials on Saturday said they faced little resistance to their targeted attack on what they said were three Syrian chemical weapons facilities. Most of the Syrian countermeasures, including defensive ballistic missiles, were fired after U.S. and allied weapons hit their targets, Lieutenant General Kenneth McKenzie told reporters on Saturday.

“No Syrian weapon had any effect on anything we did,” McKenzie said. He described the joint U.S., French and U.K. strike as “precise, overwhelming and effective.”

Subsequent reporting from Russian and Syrian sources claimed that as many as 71 allied missiles fired during the attack were shot down.

Battle Plan takes shape

During the planning phases, as Trump met with the National Security Council and military leaders earlier in the week, the president was given five targeting options, or mission sets, to potentially strike, a source told Bloomberg.

Trump mostly listened to options as they were being presented by Defense Secretary James Mattis, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, and other military leaders. Also on hand was newly-appointed National Security Advisor John Bolton, along with Vice President Mike Pence:

The president asked Bolton and the military leaders to justify each potential target, and was particularly focused on limiting the risk of escalation by Russia. There was unanimity among Trump’s top national security staff about conducting strikes but debate about how hard to hit the Syrians, the person said.

The objective was always to strike Syrian targets a) without striking Russian forces inside the country and drawing a Russian response; and b) without drawing the United States further into the Syrian conflict.

Trump said earlier this month he wants to be out of Syria in the coming months:

Trump, who just a week earlier said he wanted to pull U.S. troops out of Syria “very soon,” didn’t want to become drawn into the civil war there and instead focused the military response on deterring the use of chemical weapons, according to the official.

Sources added that U.S. ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley was also blunt in her assessment of Syrian guilt and hawkish in her push for a robust response, Bloomberg noted.

The Attack — with New Missiles

As the USS Winston Churchill arrived on station with the USS Donald Cook, the attack was already nearly ready to launch. It came as Trump addressed the nation — around 9 p.m. EDT on Friday. It came from three directions — the Red Sea, the Arabian Gulf and the Mediterranean — as a means of overwhelming any missile defenses Assad had in place.

Live Fire Original

The Pentagon noted that the weapons used included 19 new “Extended-Range” stealthy Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Attack Munitions (JASSAM) that were launched by a pair of B-1B bombers from Al Udeid Air Bases in Qatar, as well as a half-dozen Tomahawk cruise missiles that were launched from the Virginia-class submarine USS John Warner.

The JASSAM missiles have never been used in combat.

According to the Pentagon, the allied weaponry included 19 new “Extended-Range” stealthy Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Attack Munitions launched by two B-1B bombers based out of Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar, and six Tomahawk cruise missiles launched from the Virginia-class USS John Warner submarine. The bomber-launched missiles, built by Lockheed Martin Corp., had never been used in combat.

In the Red Sea, the cruiser USS Monterey fired 30 Tomahawks and the destroyer USS Laboon fired seven Tomahawks. The destroyer USS Higgins fired 23 Tomahawks from the North Arabian Gulf, according to Pentagon officials.

As for allied weapons fired, Bloomberg noted:

The weapons also included French SCALP-EG cruise missiles and British Storm Shadow standoff missiles launched by Tornado and Typhoon jets. Nine SCALP missiles were fired at what the Pentagon said was a chemical weapons storage complex at Hims-Shinshar, along with two SCALPS, nine Tomahawks and eight Storm Shadows.

The Decision

Bloomberg noted that Trump’s decision to strike — and that of the British and French — was not made based solely on the chemical attack in Syria.

It was also based in part on Russia’s use of a nerve agent in an assassination attempt of a former double agent and his daughter in March who live in England.

Bloomberg reported:

The English incident added to concerns held by Trump, his top aides, and leaders in the U.K. and France that not responding might encourage proliferation of chemical weapons, according to two administration officials who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the deliberations. 

Haley warned following the strike that Assad, who has used chemical weapons against rebels many times since the civil war began in 2011, could use them again.

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