Speaking to ABC news, a US official said that “most” of Syria’s extant operational fixed wing military aircraft have been moved to the Hmeimim airbase near Latakia, which Russia recently signed a 49-year lease on.
On 6 April, the US hit Syria’s central Shayrat air base with cruise missiles, in response to a chemical weapons attack several days earlier in Idlib, which killed at least 87 civilians. The west has pointed the finger at the Syrian government, which continues to deny responsibility.
But Sam Heller, a Syria analyst at the Century Foundation, told MEE that the relocation of aircraft, if confirmed, was not necessarily an indication the US sought to renew strikes against Syrian government positions.
Even before the US attack on Shayrat, it was expected that “if the United States or others struck Syrian regime targets, the regime would respond by more extensively intermingling and collocating its own forces with those of Russia”.
The US, Heller added, was not looking for any confrontation with Russia.
“The United States – as it signaled with the forewarning it gave to Russia ahead of the April 6 strikes – is not interested in endangering Russian personnel or risking an escalation with Russia over Syria. So this would be the logical next step for the regime and its Russian patron.”
The US government has also not shown signs that it is planning to attack Syrian government positions again any time soon, Heller said.
“So far there’s basically no indication that Washington is actually willing to commit to military action outside the parameters of the specific, chemical weapons-focused deterrent logic that officials outlined after the [Shayrat] strike.”
US defence secretary James Mattis initially said that 20 percent of Syria’s air force had been destroyed in the cruise missile attack, but later backtracked and said that 20 aircraft had been rendered inoperable.
“The Syrian air force is not in good shape. It’s been worn down by years of combat plus significant maintenance problems,” Mattis told a press briefing on 11 April.
“I thought it was – I thought it was about 20 percent. I think it’s around 20 aircraft were taken out, which probably equates to about that, although I probably shouldn’t have used the 20 percent.”
An Israeli military official, speaking to Reuters on Thursday, said that the Syrian government still possesses several tonnes of chemical weapons, in contravention of a 2013 agreement brokered by the US and Russia which was designed to see all stocks destroyed.
The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, and UK officials, have said that sarin or a sarin-like substance was used in the 4 April attack in Khan Sheikhun.