US coalition scales back anti-ISIS operations after Syria strike

US coalition scales back anti-ISIS operations after Syria strike
The US-led international coalition has pulled back on air raids in Syria after last week’s cruise missile attack against a government airbase, citing the need for caution in view of potential responses from Damascus and Moscow which has so far been absent.

US President Donald Trump blamed the “Syrian regime” for the April 4 chemical attack on the rebel-held town of Khan Shaykhun in the Idlib province, which reportedly involved sarin gas. Two days later, two US Navy destroyers fired 59 cruise missiles at the Shayrat airfield, operated by government forces.

“We have made adjustments to our operations to account for the potential tensions that resulted from the strikes that were conducted because of the Syrian regime’s chemical attack,” Colonel John Dorrian, spokesman for Operation Inherent Resolve, told the Pentagon press corps on Wednesday.

“But make no mistake, we do plan on continuing our operations and we do continue to look for ways to accelerate them,” he added.

Offensive operations against Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL) in Syria were scaled back over concerns that Syria or Russia might retaliate, US Central Command (CENTCOM) said earlier this week. So far, however, there have been no incidents.

Over the past week, the coalition carried out only 123 air strikes around Raqqa, the self-proclaimed IS “capital” in eastern Syria. More than 7,800 strikes were conducted in March, according to the Pentagon.

“It’s just appropriate to make sure that you’re taking appropriate measures to account for that,” said Dorrian. “We don’t want to be reckless and we don’t want to have some type of incident that would cause a miscalculation, or some type of unintended incident.”

Dorrian added that the Pentagon did “account for the fact that the strikes against the Syrian regime chemical capability did increase tensions there,” but confirmed that neither Syrian nor Russian forces have made any threatening moves against US or coalition planes or troops.

"The intent is to get back as quickly as possible to our normal operations and as fast a pace as we can manage,” Dorrian added.

Moscow has rejected US claims that the Syrian government was responsible for the chemical attack, noting that Damascus has accounted for all the components at ten of its chemical weapons sites under the terms of a 2013 deal struck with the US and Russia and verified by the Organization for Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).

It is unknown what happened to the stockpiles at two sites controlled by the rebels, however, according to Russian General Staff spokesman, Colonel-General Sergey Rudskoy.

Russia has long doubted the effectiveness of the US-led coalition in fighting IS, pointing to the terrorist group’s continued advances in the field until the intervention of Russian aerospace forces in September 2015.

“The coalition set up by the Obama administration did almost nothing to achieve its stated objective,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Wednesday, speaking in Moscow after meeting with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

“It had not fought consistently against Al-Nusra or ISIS until the Russian air forces were deployed in Syria,” Lavrov added, referring to militants affiliated with Al-Qaeda, which he said the West was nurturing as a tool for “regime change” in Damascus.