The Pentagon said that the retaliatory missile strikes targeted aircraft, hangars and the base’s infrastructure, including fuel pumps and anti-air defenses. It is unclear how many aircraft were stationed at the airfield at the time of the strikes.
While the United States alerted Russia that it was going to strike prior to the attack, ABC News reported Friday that Syrian forces moved personnel and equipment before the U.S. missiles were launched. Syria’s state news agency, SANA, reported that at least nine civilians, including four children, were killed near the air base. The report could not be independently verified. It is unclear how many Syrian troops, if any, were killed.
Open-source reports indicate that the base was home to a relatively modest contingent of Su-22 ground attack jets and MiG-23 fighter aircraft. Photos taken by Russian journalists and displayed on Russian media outlets, including Sputnik, show that some of the U.S.-launched Tomahawk cruise missiles destroyed aircraft located in reinforced hangars, while some were left unscathed.
With a range of more than 600 miles, the BGM-109 Tomahawk cruise missile provides a large amount of standoff for forces using the weapon. Yet, because of the amount of fuel needed to get the missile to the target, the relative explosive power of the weapon is limited. The missile’s 1,000-pound warhead can either be used to pepper a target with shrapnel or be configured to penetrate a reinforced structure such as a bunker. The Tomahawk can also be equipped to disperse cluster munitions, either to disable runways or to blanket large areas with explosives. Since 1991, Tomahawks have been used numerous times in lieu of any concerted aerial campaign or ground operation, often giving the $1.5 million munition a reputation for being a political talisman more than anything else.
Satellite imagery, posted to the website Strafor in December 2015, showed that the Shayrat airbase had undergone some refurbishments following Russia’s entry into the conflict in September of that year. The imagery also showed that Russian helicopter gunships had been moved to the base and one of the runways was in the process of being resurfaced.
Before the outbreak of the Syrian civil war, there had been upward of 40 flight-ready jets stationed at the relatively large-twin runway instillation, but six years of war have greatly reduced the size of the Syrian air force and some of the aircraft at the base have been left in disrepair or abandoned, according to Strafor’s 2015 analysis.
After the strikes, there appears to be little damage to the runaway, aside from some debris that needs to be cleared for flight operations to resume.
With roughly a dozen airfields under Syrian government control and robust air support from the Russian Air Force, the temporary closure of Sharyat will likely do little to dent Syrian government air operations. In the past, lawmakers such as Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) have pushed for more expansive attacks against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad with the goal of grounding his entire air force. After Friday’s missile barrage, McCain reiterated his desire for more strikes even though U.S. officials said they were unlikely to occur.
“Building on tonight’s credible first step, we must finally learn the lessons of history and ensure that tactical success leads to strategic progress,” McCain said in a statement. “That means following through with a new, comprehensive strategy in coordination with our allies and partners to end the conflict in Syria.”