Syrian air defences completely failed, West claims

The US says it overwhelmed and evaded Syrian air defences overnight to strike every target at the heart of Syria's chemical weapons program, in a multi-pronged attack from the air and sea alongside British and French allies.

But Syrian rebels say it will do nothing to change the course of the seven-year war, or prevent future chemical weapons attacks on civilians.

Although the operation was secretly unfolding for hours before the first impact on Saturday, it only took minutes from the first to the last detonation from 105 precision-guided missile strikes on three Syrian chemical weapons targets, officials said.

Marine Lt Gen Kenneth McKenzie, director of the Joint Staff, rejected assertions from Russia and Syria that scores of the Western missiles were shot down.

He said Russian air defences did not fire, while Syrian air defences were completely ineffective against an attack from multiple directions involving not just US, British and French aircraft but also US naval destroyers, a cruiser, a French frigate and even a US submarine.

The Syrian air defences not only missed the incoming missiles but they kept firing even after the last US, British and French strikes were complete. Some of those more than 40 Syrian missile interceptors, he suggested, might have hit civilian targets.

"When you shoot iron into the sky without guidance, it will inevitably fall to earth," Lt Gen McKenzie told reporters.

Bashar Jaafari, permanent Representative of the Syrian Arab Republic to the United Nations
Bashar Jaafari, permanent Representative of the Syrian Arab Republic to the United Nations. Photo credit: Reuters

Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White warned that Russia was actively attempting to sow confusion about the attack.

"The Russian disinformation campaign has already begun. There has been a 2000 percent increase in Russian trolls in the last 24 hours," Ms White said.

The prime target of the operation was the Barza Research and Development Centre in the greater Damascus area, which McKenzie noted was "one of the most heavily defended aerospace areas in the world".

Barza took the brunt of the fire, with 57 Tomahawk cruise missiles and 19 Joint Air to Surface Stand-off missiles.

Though some of Syria's chemical weapons infrastructure was still left, "I think we've dealt them a severe blow," McKenzie said, adding it would set the program back for years.

Despite severely damaging the infrastructure with the strikes, Lt Gen McKenzie said the Pentagon would not rule out that the Assad government still had the capability to use such weapons again.

"There's still a residual element of the Syrian program that's out there," he said. "I'm not going to say that they're going to be unable to continue to conduct a chemical attack in the future. I suspect, however, they'll think long and hard about it."

The destroyed Scientific Research Centre is seen in Damascus, Syria
The destroyed Scientific Research Centre is seen in Damascus, Syria. Photo credit: Reuters

Doubts on the rebel side

A former officer in Syria's chemical programme says the strikes were "unlikely to curb the government's ability to produce or launch new attacks".

Capt Adulsalam Abdulrazek, who defected from the chemical programme in 2012, said Saturday the regime "still can use chemical weapons anywhere it wants" and the strikes hit "parts of but not the heart" of the programme.

Speaking from rebel-held northern Syria, Abdulrazek told The Associated Press there were an estimated 50 warehouses around Syria that stored chemical weapons before the programme was dismantled in 2013.

It is "hard for any military strike in an hour to eliminate the chemical weapons programme," he added.

He says he believes those fixed storage facilities, mostly in rural Syria, remain intact or were only slightly moved around.

He says Syria's chemical weapons programme was only partially dismantled because Damascus didn't allow inspections of existing stockpiles and capabilities.

On April 7, more than 40 civilians were killed in a suspected chemical attack in Douma outside Damascus.

Syria has denied responsibility, but the US, France and Britain have said there is no doubt the Assad government was responsible.

The US Navy guided-missile cruiser USS Monterey fires a Tomahawk land attack missile.
The US Navy guided-missile cruiser USS Monterey fires a Tomahawk land attack missile. Photo credit: Reuters

Inspectors on the way

Despite the Western attacks, weapons inspectors are still trying to reach the site of the suspected poison attack in Douma.

Security permitting, a team from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons will deploy briefly to the site.

The team will work with the United Nations Department of Safety and Security to ensure the safety of the team, it said.

Syria agreed to give up its chemical weapons arsenal in 2013 and submit to OPCW inspections. It is meant to have destroyed all of its stockpiles of nerve agents. In the case of chlorine, it is permitted to possess it for civilian use, but not to use it as a weapon.

The OPCW will determine whether chemical weapons were used, but will not assign blame.

Reuters / APTN / Newshub.