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Saturday 27 May 2017

Air base strike 'had limited impact on Syrian military capability'

A US missile attack caused heavy damage to one of Syria's biggest and most strategic air bases, used to launch warplanes to strike opposition-held areas in central, northern and southern Syria (AP)
A US missile attack caused heavy damage to one of Syria's biggest and most strategic air bases, used to launch warplanes to strike opposition-held areas in central, northern and southern Syria (AP)

The US missile attack caused heavy damage to one of Syria's biggest and most strategic air bases - but the impact on President Bashar Assad's military capabilities is limited.

Videos from inside the Shayrat air base - used to launch warplanes to strike opposition-held areas throughout Syria - showed fighter jets and hangars destroyed and runways pocked with holes after Friday's strike.

However, Mr Assad's air force has more than a dozen other bases from which to operate.

In fact, just hours after 59 US Tomahawk missiles hit the base south-east of the city of Homs, Syrian warplanes struck opposition targets in the north and south of the country, including one near the town of Khan Sheikhoun, where a chemical weapons attack on Tuesday triggered the US missile strike.

The missiles - launched from the USS Ross and USS Porter warships deployed in the Mediterranean - targeted the base's two airstrips, hangars, control tower and ammunition depots, US officials said.

Russian defence ministry spokesman Maj Gen Igor Konashenkov said the strike destroyed six Syrian air force MiG-23 fighter jets which were undergoing repairs, but did not damage other warplanes at the base.

The Kremlin maintained only 23 of the 59 cruise missiles reached the base, leaving the runways intact.

A US official said all but one of the 59 missiles struck their targets, hitting multiple aircraft and air shelters, and destroying the fuel area.

"Although the strike will further weaken the overall air defence and ground attack capabilities of the (Syrian air force), it will not significantly diminish the ability of the Assad regime to conduct further chemical weapons attacks," wrote analyst Reed Foster of the defence and intelligence publication Jane's.

Col Hassan Hamade, a Syrian pilot who defected in June 2012 when he landed his MiG-21 in Jordan, agreed, saying: " The bombardment of Shayrat will not have a major effect on military operations of the regime."

He said if only the tarmac was destroyed it can be fixed within hours, but if the communications system and the control tower were heavily damaged it will take weeks, if not months.

No matter how extensive the damage at Shayrat, Mr Assad has other options, Mr Hamade said. There are 25 air bases in Syria, including 20 under government control.

He said Shayrat is the second-most active base when it comes to take-offs and landings, superseded only by the Hemeimeem base operated by the Russian military in the coastal province of Latakia.

He said he expects the country's third-most active, Saqqal air base, which is also located in central Syria, will fill the vacuum created by the destruction at Shayrat.

Mr Hamade said Iranian military advisers were active at the base, though it is not possible to independently confirm the claim.

Opposition activists in the area reported extensive damage.

Activist Mohammed al-Sibai, who is based in Homs province, said: "Shayrat air base in Homs that killed and displaced innocent people is out of order after the American military strikes."

Rami Abdurrahman, head of the UK-based Observatory for Human Rights, which operates a network of activists on the ground in Syria, said: "The air base is almost nearly destroyed, including aircraft and air defence bases."

However, he said the strike on the base, Syria's second-largest, with a fleet of Sukhoi-22, Sukhoi-24 and MiG-23 warplanes, is more of a moral blow than a military one.

Syrian government officials said the base has played an instrumental role in the fight against the Islamic State group (IS), which until recently controlled the historic town of Palmyra in Homs province.

"This very airport that was attacked by the United States has been fighting against terrorists for the last six years," Mr Assad's adviser Buthaina Shaaban said.

"If the United States is serious about fighting terrorism, why not direct its missiles on Daesh (IS) and al-Nusra?" she added.

Press Association

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