Assad moves warplanes to ‘safety’ of Russian base

Most of Syria’s combat aircraft have been moved to a Russian base in the country to protect the fleet from further American airstrikes amid claims that the regime still has tonnes of chemical weapons in its arsenal.

The US claims a fifth of President Assad’s operational warplanes were destroyed in a retaliatory cruise missile attack on Shayrat airbase two weeks after Syrian jets reportedly dropped nerve gas on a rebel-held town in Idlib. More than 86 people, including 30 children, died in one of the deadliest chemical attacks of the six-year war.

Israeli military officials have said the regime still has up to three tonnes of chemical weapons. Senior Syrian army commanders, probably with Assad’s knowledge, ordered the attack using stocks that had been hidden from international inspectors, they told reporters.

Syria agreed to give up its chemical weapons in 2013 after a sarin attack killed hundreds in the Damascus suburbs. The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) destroyed most of its 1,200-tonne stockpile.

However the Israelis believe that “between one and three tonnes” were successfully hidden.

Assad has denied responsibility for the April 4 attack in Idlib province, and suggested that videos of dead children were a fabrication meant to hurt his regime. The OPCW said yesterday that it had found “incontrovertible” proof that sarin or a similar substance was used.

Fearing further strikes by the Americans, Assad’s forces have now moved many of their working combat aircraft to the Hmeimim airbase and the adjacent Bassel al-Assad international airport in Latakia, used by the Russians, according to US officials.

The Hmeimim base, in Assad’s coastal stronghold, was built in 2015 to serve as the strategic centre for Russia’s operations against Islamic State. Moscow has used it to launch sorties against rebel factions as well.

The move to Latakia puts the aircraft under the protection of Russia’s S-400 air-defence system, which is believed to be stationed there, the officials said. The S-400 is an advanced long-range air-defence system boasting an operational radius of 150 miles.

The redeployment makes it far harder for the US to hit Syrian planes without potentially damaging the 30 or so fixed-wing aircraft and 15 helicopter gunships Russia has regularly deployed at its airbase, or some of the hundreds of Russian personnel. The regime began moving planes from Shayrat, about 110 miles south of Hmeimim, shortly after the airstrike on April 6.

James Mattis, the US defence secretary, said that 20 per cent of Assad’s planes were destroyed when 59 Tomahawks were fired at the base. Syria is believed to have between 100 to 120 operational aircraft left.

The Kremlin was furious at the US strike, calling it an “action of aggression” against a sovereign state and a violation of international law.

Moscow maintains that the chemical assault on Khan Sheikhoun was due to regime warplanes taking out a rebel chemical stockpile, not a toxic gas bomb. It later vetoed a UN security council resolution condemning the attack and calling for an investigation.

President Assad went further in an interview last week, saying the attack had been faked by the rebels and the West to justify the airbase strike. He questioned whether the corpses of children shown in graphic videos taken at the scene were “dead at all”.

The OPCW has confirmed samples from ten victims showed that a sarin-like substance had been used.

Most of Syria’s combat aircraft have been moved to a Russian base in the country to protect the fleet from further American airstrikes amid claims that the regime still has tonnes of chemical weapons in its arsenal.

The US claims a fifth of President Assad’s operational warplanes were destroyed in a retaliatory cruise missile attack on Shayrat airbase two weeks after Syrian jets reportedly dropped nerve gas on a rebel-held town in Idlib. More than 86 people, including 30 children, died in one of the deadliest chemical attacks of the six-year war.

Israeli military officials have said the regime still has up to three tonnes of chemical weapons. Senior Syrian army commanders, probably with Assad’s knowledge, ordered the attack using stocks that had been hidden from international inspectors, they told reporters.

Syria agreed to give up its chemical weapons in 2013 after a sarin attack killed hundreds in the Damascus suburbs. The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) destroyed most of its 1,200-tonne stockpile.

However the Israelis believe that “between one and three tonnes” were successfully hidden.

Assad has denied responsibility for the April 4 attack in Idlib province, and suggested that videos of dead children were a fabrication meant to hurt his regime. The OPCW said yesterday that it had found “incontrovertible” proof that sarin or a similar substance was used.

Fearing further strikes by the Americans, Assad’s forces have now moved many of their working combat aircraft to the Hmeimim airbase and the adjacent Bassel al-Assad international airport in Latakia, used by the Russians, according to US officials.

The Hmeimim base, in Assad’s coastal stronghold, was built in 2015 to serve as the strategic centre for Russia’s operations against Islamic State. Moscow has used it to launch sorties against rebel factions as well.

The move to Latakia puts the aircraft under the protection of Russia’s S-400 air-defence system, which is believed to be stationed there, the officials said. The S-400 is an advanced long-range air-defence system boasting an operational radius of 150 miles.

The redeployment makes it far harder for the US to hit Syrian planes without potentially damaging the 30 or so fixed-wing aircraft and 15 helicopter gunships Russia has regularly deployed at its airbase, or some of the hundreds of Russian personnel. The regime began moving planes from Shayrat, about 110 miles south of Hmeimim, shortly after the airstrike on April 6.

James Mattis, the US defence secretary, said that 20 per cent of Assad’s planes were destroyed when 59 Tomahawks were fired at the base. Syria is believed to have between 100 to 120 operational aircraft left.

The Kremlin was furious at the US strike, calling it an “action of aggression” against a sovereign state and a violation of international law.

Moscow maintains that the chemical assault on Khan Sheikhoun was due to regime warplanes taking out a rebel chemical stockpile, not a toxic gas bomb. It later vetoed a UN security council resolution condemning the attack and calling for an investigation.

President Assad went further in an interview last week, saying the attack had been faked by the rebels and the West to justify the airbase strike. He questioned whether the corpses of children shown in graphic videos taken at the scene were “dead at all”.

The OPCW has confirmed samples from ten victims showed that a sarin-like substance had been used.

source:thetimes.co.uk

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