Russia's explicit threat issued on April 11 to shoot down missiles and target deployment sites in the event of a U.S.-led military strike on Syria has caused a great deal of consternation. The statement fits with a Russian pattern of threats against U.S. assets in the war-torn country, and it is not likely to change U.S. intentions to punish the Syrian government for its purported use of chemical weapons against a rebel-held area. The latest developments appear to be just another chapter in the continuing back-and-forth between the countries over Syria; they include Russian moves to cut communication avenues with the United States, the United States responding to ameliorate the issue, then the two sides eventually returning to talks over deconfliction, where the two sides coordinate military action to avoid incidents between them. Those talks are where Moscow has routinely tried to steer the dialogue away from battlefield tactics and toward the overarching strategic issues between it and Washington.
In the aftermath of the U.S. punitive operation against Syria after another alleged chemical attack by loyalist forces — a cruise missile strike ordered by President Donald Trump in April 2017 — Russia temporarily halted cooperation with deconfliction efforts on the Syrian battlefield. Two months later, the United States shot down a Syrian aircraft, and threats emanated from Russia that it would target any U.S. aircraft in Syrian airspace that ventured west of the Euphrates River. Now, Russia, Syria and the world at large anticipate another U.S. strike against Syrian interests. But this one will likely include a wider swath of targets in an effort to degrade the Syrian government's ability to carry out further chemical attacks and reinforce a message of deterrence. That means it will take more of an effort to circumvent Russian forces, particularly along the coast where its air defense assets are concentrated and are on high alert.
The Big Picture
Despite its inability to rein in a Syrian government intent on all-out victory in its fight against rebel factions, Russia will continue to play a key diplomatic and military role in the country's civil war as part of a wider effort to force the United States to engage it in a strategic conversation. With its promise to counter the anticipated U.S.-led military action in retaliation for alleged Syrian chemical weapons use, Russia is showcasing its credibility as a reliable ally to Syria as it attempts to bolster its wider regional ambitions.
To carry out a more wide-ranging strike while avoiding Russian air defenses, the United States can rely on guided munitions with standoff range. In its calculations, the U.S. military has factored in the probable loss of a handful of Tomahawk missiles, the likely main weapon of choice, to anti-missile systems, none of which will significantly undermine the impact of a strike. Given that Tomahawks are neither ideal at cratering runaways nor able to penetrate hardened bunkers, the United States may augment its strike with manned aircraft such as B-2 bombers dispatched from the United States and supported by regionally based tactical aircraft, such as F-22 fighters. As happened in April 2017, before it launches any attack, the United States will notify Russian commanders in the field ahead of time to minimize collateral damage.
The United States is not likely to make a strike unilaterally. Stratfor is closely monitoring any shift in position by France or the United Kingdom after the Russian threat. The British Parliament does not return from its recess until April 16. While a vote is not required for the United Kingdom's participation in a strike, considering the fragile ruling coalition, Prime Minister Theresa May will want to tread carefully. France has already conveyed its intent to target Syrian chemical manufacturing sites, which would include locations around Latakia, where the Russians have a presence and where the threat to French attackers would be higher. Syria, meanwhile, has taken steps to reduce its vulnerability by moving its aircraft and key assets to multiple sites, reportedly including the Russian-operated Hmeimim air base.
At this point, we are not seeing signs of U.S. carriers surging into the region. Of the carrier groups currently deployed, the USS John C. Stennis is training in the Pacific Ocean and the USS Theodore Roosevelt is conducting a port visit in Manila, Philippines. The USS Harry S. Truman, which left April 11 from its home port in Norfolk, Virginia, cannot realistically be in position to participate in a Syrian strike for an additional four or five days. The present force structure implies that any U.S. response will remain a punitive strike with a limited range of targets. Delay of the strike to allow more assets such as the Truman to move into place could portend an intent to expand the target set or conduct a more sustained strike over time for greater effect.