The joint missile-attack targeting Syrian Chemical-weapons facilities by the U.S., Britain and France, was – in its limited scope – very successful. Combining Electronic warfare suppression, a decoy battle group in eastern Mediterranean and stealth missiles (Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Attack Munitions or “JASSAM”), the missiles hit their targets before Syrian anti-missile batteries even fired. Russian and Syrian claims of shooting down most of the missiles (without presenting any proof) were summarily refuted by Pentagon spokesperson Lt.Gen. Kenneth McKenzie who, while showing satellite-images of the targets “before and after”, said that “no Syrian weapon had any effect on anything we did” adding that the strike was “precise, overwhelming and effective”.
McKenzie also added as a matter of fact, that most Syrian counter-measures were fired after the allied missiles had already hit their targets.
There are no reasons to doubt the described scenario, and verbal posturing is part and parcel of any such event. But perhaps the real story is not so much the efficiency of the allied attacks themselves. As has been pointed out already (including by the allies) the intention of the attacks was not to aid in toppling Assad or hitting the Russians (without whose help Assad would probably have been gone already). The sole and limited aim of the attacks was to send a message to Assad that using chemical weapons would carry a price. Whether that message will be heeded this time remains to be seen of course. But by clearly putting down some markers this time, at least the western allies have shown some seriousness in dealing with the Assad regime going too far.
But what the allied attack did show beyond any doubt is that Russia, despite having assets on the ground in Syria, was unable to counter the attacks. Appearance count for a lot in the Middle East and the fact that Russia, despite some harsh rhetoric before the attacks (even going so far as to deny the attacks took place at all or was a British “ploy”) when push came to show, Russia couldn’t aid Assad. This is not lost on anyone.
The Russian force in Syria includes dozens of bombers and attack helicopters. This is enough to clobber and pulverize civilians and lightly armed rebels, but it lack experience and sufficient equipment to take on an adversary with cutting-edge capabilities. Putin’s big advantage so far has been that Russia (and Iran) is the only country prepared to deploy a significant enough force in Syria to make a difference. And as long as no-one seriously challenged that, the image held.
The writing’s been on the wall however; In February around 200 Russian “mercenaries” were killed in U.S. airstrikes when attacking U.S.-backed SDF-forces. And last year a limited U.S. missile attack went without any serious Russian interference.
The Israelis has allegedly been conducting air-strikes against Hizb’allah and lately Iranian assets in Syria for several years, but Israel doesn’t advertise those and still has a functioning line of communication with Russia. But even small Israel can probably outmaneuver Russian assets in Syria if forced to. And the combination of U.S., French and British forces (possibly with Israel and Turkey) are too much for Russia to deal with.
So the question remains; what options do Putin have to regain some deterrence in Syria? As shown, there are no real military options, other than a massive increase in Russian military in Syria, which is not in the cards.
Putin could also increase cyber-attacks (Pentagon reported that within 24hrs of the Douma attack there was a 2000% increase in Russian trolls), but that does have a limited effect and wouldn’t necessarily stop new allied attacks in Syria.
At the end of the day, the Russian image of hegemony in Syria has been shattered and the kind of leverage he was hoping for in Syria when intervening in late 2015, has not materialized. Whether this situation will remain is really up to other actors than Russia, a lesson certainly not lost on Moscow, or his Syrian protégé in Damascus.