Four Outlandish Russian Ministry of Defense Claims About The Syrian Missile Raid

In one single press conference, the Kremlin has disputed almost every basic detail about the American, British, and French operation.

Evgenyi Samarin / Sputnik via AP

It’s no secret that the Russian government has turned disinformation into an art form, to the point that they don't even necessarily need to create believable narratives to raise doubts and effectively muddy the waters regarding major international events. True to form, the Kremlin has now made a host of outrageous claims about recent U.S., U.K., and French strikes on chemical weapons sites in Syria to try and bolster the Syrian regime’s own assertions that it was able to defeat the majority of the incoming missiles.

Top Russian Defense Ministry spokesperson Major General Igor Konashenkov provided this latest dubious counter-narrative, without providing any supporting evidence, during a press conference at the ministry in Moscow on April 16, 2018. His remarks dispute almost every detail the United States and its allies have provide about the operation, right down to the total number of targets American, British, and French aircraft and ships struck and how many missiles they employed altogether.

You can read his entire statement in English on the Russian Defense Ministry website, but here are four of the officer’s assertions that are hardest to believe.

According to the U.S. military, American, British, and French forces fired 105 cruise missiles of various types against three groups of targets in Syria. In addition, the Syrian air defenses fired 40 surface-to-air missiles, mostly after the strike was over, and there was no immediate indication that they shot anything down in the process.

Vadim Savitskii / Sputnik  via AP

Russian Defense Ministry spokesperson Major General Igor Konashenkov gives his briefing on April 16, 2018.

The United States and its partners didn't hit Barzah with 76 missiles

Konashenkov’s first point was to question why the United States and its allies fired 76 missiles – 57 Tomahawk Land Attack Cruise Missiles (TLAM) and 19 Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile-Extended Range (JASSM-ER) air-launched cruise missiles – at the Barzah Research Center near Syria’s capital Damascus. But the major general insists that this apparent overkill is actually an attempt to hide the true scope of the operation.

“The fact is that all Syrian objects [at Barzah] declared as targets are not subsurface ones or well protected by the echeloned air defense system of bunkers,” he said. “Therefore, it was enough not more than 10 missiles for each of the three targets in order to destroy them by any calculation methods, taking into account the triple overlap for their guaranteed destruction.”

It’s definitely worth asking why it was necessary to employ nearly 80 missiles, each costing many hundreds of thousands of dollars, against two above-ground research facilities and an associated parking structure. But there's nothing to suggest the U.S. military’s report is necessarily impossible or implausible.

We know that the mission planning took into account that there were likely chemical weapons or precursor chemical stockpiles at Barzah, which could have posed a danger to innocent bystanders in the surrounding area, as it has done when striking similar targets in the past. The research center is situated in a more densely populated area than the other two targets the U.S. military and its allies struck and it is possible that the number of missiles employed reflected a deliberate attempt to make sure any agents were completely vaporized in the process.

The video below shows a U.S. air strike on an ISIS chemical weapons production facility in Mosul, Iraq in 2016.

More likely, especially based on what we also know from the Pentagon’s subsequent briefing, this large number of missiles was, at least in part, dictated by a need for it to be larger overall operation than the one against Syria’s Shayrat Air Base in 2017. The ostensible goal was to send a message that this operation was more significant than the last one, which involved 59 Tomahawks, one of which failed to reach its target.

It was also important to ensure that the site was completely obliterated to avoid the same kind of criticisms that followed the strike on Shayrat, after which the Syrians quickly put the base back into operation calling into question the utility of the operation in the first place.

"You can look at the map – you can particularly at the Barzeh site and make your own conclusions," U.S. Marine Corps Lieutenant General Kenneth McKenzie, the Director of the Joint Staff, said on April 14, 2018. "I would say they had three buildings there and a parking deck, and now they don't. "

It’s also worth noting that Konashenkov does not appear to use the Pentagon’s own stated figures about the strike, suggesting that the American, British, and French missiles were equally distributed among the three targets. The U.S. military’s statement that the French were solely responsible for the last target, the Him Shinshar bunker complex, and only employed seven SCALP air-launched cruise missiles, definitely doesn’t fit with his overarching narrative of overkill across the board.

The video below shows French aircraft during the strikes on Syria on April 14, 2018.

The operation attempted to destroy 10 targets, not three

This basic assertion is essential to the Russian officer’s next major claim, which is that the United States and its allies actually attacked 10 different targets in Syria, not three. According to Konashenkov, in addition to the Barzah site and the two distinct target sets at Him Shinshar, missiles flew toward Damascus International Airport and Syrian air bases at Al Dumayr, Blai, Shayrat, Tiyas, Mazzeh, and Homs. It’s unclear what facility he was talking about with regards to Homs, since the governorate as a whole is home to the Shayrat, Tiyas, and Al Qusayr air bases.

Conveniently, the Russian military officer said that Syrian air defenses were able to shoot down all but five targeting Mazzeh and three that hit Homs. Miraculously, none of those weapons were able to cause any significant damage, either. So there could be no evidence to prove or disprove these claims beyond the U.S. military’s own statements otherwise.

But there is absolutely no indication that any of these sites were intended targets. Air defenders at Mazzeh, which is situated less than 10 miles from downtown Damascus, did reportedly fire surface-to-air missiles, but it's not when those launches occurred and there’s no indication that the base – which Konashenkov also claimed was unoccupied at the time – was ever in any danger itself.

On top of that, depending on what the actual target the major general was referring to in Homs, it is possible that any damage might have been from a previous strike. On April 8, 2016, Israel reportedly launched a separate strike on Tiyas, also known as T4, in the governorate.

The Syrians shot down more than 70 missiles

With so many targets apparently unscathed, Konashenkov reiterated the Syrian government’s claim that its forces had been able to shoot down 71 missiles. He also repeated the regime’s position that there were only 103 rather than 105 missiles to begin with.

Again, if this is true, it means Syrian air defense forces had a better than 67 percent kill ratio against the incoming missiles – and a 100 percent kill ratio in defense of five specific targets – except when it came to the three locations the U.S. military and its allies say they actually struck. This is on par with Russia’s equally questionable insistence that only 23 of the 59 missiles the United States launched at Shayrat in 2017 made it through to hit that base.

“It is to be stressed that [the] Syrian air defense system was organized on the principle of object defense,” Konashenkov said. “Almost all objects protected by air defense systems repelled the strike.”

Though it is likely that the Syrians don't have enough point air defense systems to adequately defend every one of their vital military installations against a large cruise missile attack, the massive discrepancy in the effectiveness of the response makes this claim questionable. It seems difficult to believe that Syria's military could completely prevent attacks on five of 10 supposed targets, effectively neutralize the impact on two more, but let 80 percent of the missiles hit their mark at Barzah and Him Sinshar. 

"We also note that we've successfully destroyed three buildings in metropolitan Damascus" in the Barzah strike, Lieutenant General McKenzie, the Director of the Joint Staff, added. "[This is] one of the most heavily defended airspace areas in the world."

In addition, despite supposedly shooting down dozens of incoming cruise missiles, there has so far been no significant photographic evidence of the resulting debris one might associate with such a high volume of shoot downs. There is one unconfirmed photograph of what appears to be part of a U.K. Storm Shadow air-launched cruise missile somewhere near Homs, but it’s unclear if that was just the debris leftover from a successful impact.

Other images making the rounds on social media actually show part of an SS-21 Tochka short-range ballistic missile, a pair of damaged R-40 air-to-air missiles, and tail sections from 2K12E Kvadrat surface-to-air missiles, also known as the SA-6 Gainful. Missiles and guided bombs often leave behind evidence during perfectly normal functioning and yet there is little evidence of even that so far.

Nearly 65 percent of Syrian surface-to-air missiles hit something

Shooting down missiles, especially low-flying cruise missiles, with other missiles isn’t easy to do under the best of circumstances. And while the Syrian air defense network has shown itself to be a semi-credible threat, including to advanced air forces such as that of Israel, it has been of minimal effectiveness against hostile, non-stealthy jets flying deep into the country to conduct strikes.

Now, the Syrians, and by extension, the Russians, are claiming that these same air defenders managed to shoot down nearly two-thirds of all the incoming missiles using seven different short-to-medium range surface-to-air missile systems. According to Konashenkov, Syria’s military also fired 112 surface-to-air missiles, nearly three times more than the Pentagon reported.

Among those, the command- and infrared guided Pantsir-S1 and 9K35 Strela-10 – also known as the SA-13 Gopher – were reportedly among the most effective with 96 and 60 percent hit rates respectively. The radar-guided Buk and the similar, but older 2K12E Kvadrat, were supposedly the other two top performers, taking down more than 80 and 50 percent of their intended targets respectively.

The claims about the Pantsir-S1 and Buk systems and their effectiveness seem almost too impressive to be believed, again especially since there is so little visual evidence to back it up. In addition, the S-200 was 100 percent ineffective in this instance. Also known as the SA-5 Gammon, this is the only Syrian air defense system to have scored a confirmed kill of any kind in the past 18 months, shooting down an Israeli F-16I Sufa multi-role combat jet in February 2018.

Vitaly Kuzmin

A Pantsir-S1 air defense system.

“It is to be added that no one should be misled by low results made by S-200 air defense missile systems,” Konashenkov said. “This system is primarily designed to hit aircraft. However, this system shot down a fighter of a neighboring country.”

But the same goes for every other system he listed, not one of which is primarily an anti-missile defense weapon. The Russians do claim many of the systems Syria has in its arsenal have secondary uses against cruise missiles and other small targets, but there is virtually no confirmed, real-world data about their effectiveness in that role.

And if the Kremlin and the Syrians are to be believed, the Buk, in particular, performed better than even the manufacturer Almaz-Antey's expectations, which says it should be able to hit cruise missiles between 70 and 80 percent of the time. This marketing figure almost certainly reflects employing the system under the most optimal conditions, if it is entirely accurate at all. Responding to multi-directional, short-notice cruise missile barrage in the dead of night is hardly the best case scenario for any air defense network.

This also seems to ignore the advanced capabilities of both JASSM-ER and Storm Shadow/SCALP, which have low-observable designs and other features to improve their survivability. The non-stealthy, but low-flying, terrain-following TLAM also has decades of proven capability against similar integrated air defense networks.

All of this would have reduced the time air defenders would have had to detect and engage the incoming weapons at all. The stealth features on nearly 40 of the incoming missiles would have made it difficult even for point defense systems to track and target them in the short window available, as well.

Vitaly Kuzmin

The transporter erector launcher and radar (TELAR) portion of the Buk-M2 air defense system.

The 'real situation'

“Now, there is a real situation,” Konashenkov stressed in offering his counterpoint to the U.S. military’s own reports, as well as the corroborating statements from British and French allies. To believe him, though, one has to accept that the United States government is explicitly lying about almost every detail of the strikes.

The major general’s claims rely entirely on the idea that not only did the U.S., U.K., and French forces attempt to destroy more than three times as many targets, they effectively did no damage to any of those other sites. Then Syrian air defenders managed to knock out dozens of incoming missiles, but so far have not been able to recover any trophies from firmly regime-controlled areas to display of this massive victory. 

Beyond that, every single one of their air defense systems performed extremely well with the sole exception of the one system it has conclusively demonstrated it is capable of employing effectively, the SA-5. Perhaps most important, those weapons were able to work with a high degree of success against some of the most advanced and proven cruise missiles in production today.

The alternative is to believe the Pentagon’s official report, that it, along with its allies, launched strikes against three distinct targets and destroyed them all, which would remain true even if it does turn out that some of the missiles got shot down or otherwise failed to reach their destinations in the end. The U.S. military has not said conclusively that all of its weapons functioned properly.

If nothing else, it is worth noting that neither the Syrians nor the Russians deny that American, British, and French missiles successfully leveled Barzah and the facilities at Him Shinshar, which is perhaps the only point the two sides agree on.

Contact the author: jtrevithickpr@gmail.com