The US carried out 59 Tomahawk missile strikes in Syria last year after a chemical gas attack it blamed on the Assad regime [US Navy/Handout/Reuters]
Analysts answered five key questions about what to expect next.
What types of US missiles could be fired?
Lawrence Korb, former US assistant secretary of defence, told Al Jazeera the US military is likely to use Tomahawk missiles.
Tomahawks were used in previous US attacks in Syria last year in response to the use of chemical weapons in the rebel-held Khan Sheikhoun town of Idlib province.
The Pentagon said 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles were fired from two warships in the Mediterranean at the Shayrat airfield in Homs province, targeting a Syrian airbase from where US officials alleged the Khan Sheikhoun chemical attack had been launched. Six Syrian military personnel were killed.
This time the Tomahawks may be relied on again, analysts said.
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“According to unofficial sources, the US deployed several carriers with cruise missiles in the Mediterranean and Red Seas,” said Fuad Shahbazov, a security and military expert based in Azerbaijan.
“Also possible attacks with fighter jets should be considered as the US has huge airbases in the Gulf countries,” he added.
What are the likely targets?
The US will most likely strike the Syrian army’s command and control headquarters, as well as its chemical weapons storage, according to Shahbazov.
Judging by the current location of US cruise missiles aboard its naval vessels, pro-Assad strongholds along the Mediterranean, in Latakia province, may face attacks from the sea, he said.
But Afzal Ashraf, from the Centre for Conflict Security and Terrorism, told Al Jazeera US President Donald Trump’s tweets specifically saying “smart missiles” will be used likely weren’t appreciated by his military commanders, and a new strategy may be devised.
“They usually don’t like to declare what they’re going to do and how they’re going to do it beforehand,” said Ashraf. “So the US military may decide to use a different method.”
What is the objective of the attack?
The main goal of the attack would be the prevention of any further use of chemical weapons, said Korb.
But it remains unclear if the United States knows where these are stored in Syria, Ashraf noted.
“If we know where the chemical weapons are then they can be destroyed. If they do attack chemical weapon installations, the question has to be asked why they haven’t attacked there before. I doubt there are any chemical weapon installations that the West knows about. So these attacks will be general military targets,” he said.
Ashraf suggested the US would likely keep its warplanes and naval vessels out of proximity to Russian forces.
“What does appear to be coming out is what is known as a ‘standoff attack’ involving cruise missiles and other missiles to avoid the possibility of engagement between Russian and US-backed aircraft and ships.
“If that happens, a very big red line is crossed and we’re into some very difficult territory involving war between Russia and the US, and that’s something nobody is really ready for,” Ashraf said.
What is Russia’s likely response?
Moscow’s reaction will most probably be limited to public condemnation, if the US does not target the Russian military, according to Korb.
However, Shahbazov said the Russian defence ministry’s warnings about retaliation should be noted.
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“[Russia’s response] will include missile attacks against opposition forces and military positions of the US special forces,” he said, adding a long-term ground operation against the rebels was highly unlikely.
Comparing the April 2017 US Tomahawk strikes, Ashraf noted it was likely the Russians gave the Syrians a warning that the attack was coming.
“The only real difference from last time is that the Syrians were given a tipoff via the Russians and they were able to disperse their assets, so not many people were killed and not much equipment destroyed. This particular case, it sounds as though a warning is not going to be available,” he said.
What type of anti-missile systems does Moscow have in Syria? Can they counter US strikes?
Shahbazov said Russia’s main anti-missile system in Syria, the S300 Gladiator, was deployed in the country at the end of 2016 .
“However, it is also possible that Russia will use its modern S400 system that also has been deployed in Syria for more than a year. This system may challenge all modern fighter jets. But Russia has not used this system in Syria yet,” he said.
Korb said it was unlikely that Russia would be able to counter the US attacks.
Ashraf agreed saying many of the US targets in Syria would likely be hit.
“If the Russians are true to their words, some of those missiles will be intercepted. No air-defence system is full-proof, so I would guess a fairly significant proportion would get through to their targets,” he said.