Syria has reportedly placed the majority of its warplanes under Russian protection out of fears US will conduct additional airstrikes on its military installations.
US defense officials told media outlets on Thursday that nearly all of Syria’s operational fixed-wing aircraft were now stationed at Hmeimim Air Base, just south of the port city of Latakia.
Hmeimim is a Syrian airbase but has been exclusively operated by Russian forces since Moscow intervened in the bloody civil war to fight alongside Bashar Assad’s regime in mid-2015.
According to CNN, Russian forces have deployed anti-aircraft defense systems at Hmeimim as a protective measure.
US officials said the move was a likely effort to protect Syria’s remaining operational planes from a repeat of the April 7 US missile strike in response to a deadly chemical weapons attack on a rebel-held town that has been widely blamed on the Damascus regime.
The chemical attack on Khan Sheikhoun killed at least 87 people, including many children, and images of the dead and of suffering victims provoked global outrage.
Much of the international community pointed the finger at the Assad regime for the attack, though it denied any responsibility.
In response, the US fired 59 Tomahawk missiles at the Sharat airbase, targeting radars, aircraft, and air defense systems at the base where the planes which bombed Khan Sheikhoun were stationed.
US Defense Secretary James Mattis at the time said the US cruise missile strike destroyed over 20 Syrian warplanes, some 20 percent of the regime’s working aircraft.
Last week Mattis reiterated warnings that further chemical weapons use by Assad will be met with fresh US action. “If they use chemical weapons, they are going to pay a very, very stiff price,” he said at the Pentagon last week.
On Wednesday, an Israeli defense official said Assad still possesses up to three tons of chemical weapons and said the US strike was not a turning point in the war “but rather another development in the fighting.”
The official also said Israeli intelligence indicated Assad personally approved the chemical attack.
“It’s hard for me to believe that he didn’t know about it,” the officer said.
Russia — which along with Iran has deployed forces to help Assad in the six-year-old civil war — reacted with fury to the US strike and has continued to cast doubt on the regime’s involvement in the chemical attack, to Washington’s disgust.
Though Washington had informed Russian forces in Syria of the retaliatory strike in advance to avoid casualties that could prompt a broader crisis, it has accused Moscow of waging a misinformation campaign surrounding the attack for defending Assad.
Russia has staunchly defended Damascus against accusations of war crimes from the West, and along with China, last week vetoed a UN Security Council resolution that would have condemned the killings and demanded Assad cooperate with an international investigation into the attack.
Last week, as US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson touched down in Moscow to confront the Kremlin over its support for Assad, President Vladimir Putin claimed the attack on Khan Sheikhoun was staged by Syrian rebels in order to encourage US intervention.
The Syrian government has been locked in a six-year civil war against an array of opposition forces. The fighting has killed an estimated 400,000 people and displaced half of Syria’s population.
Syria agreed to give up its chemical weapons arsenal to avert US strikes following a chemical weapons attack in opposition-held suburbs of Damascus in August 2013 that killed hundreds of people and sparked worldwide outrage.
Ahead of that disarmament, Assad’s government disclosed it had some 1,300 tons of chemical weapons, including sarin, VX nerve agent and mustard gas.
The entire stockpile was said to have been dismantled and shipped out under international supervision in 2014 and destroyed. But doubts began to emerge soon afterward that not all such armaments or production facilities were declared and destroyed. There also is evidence that the Islamic State group and other insurgents have acquired chemical weapons.
Earlier this week, Assad’s former chemical weapons research chief told Britain’s The Telegraph newspaper that Syria had “at least 2,000 tons” of chemical weapons before the war and only declared 1,300. Former Brig. Gen. Zaher al-Sakat said the Syrian government still possessed hundreds of tons of chemical weapons.