Spy planes & aircraft carrier: US boosts presence off Syria amid WMD accusations

Spy planes & aircraft carrier: US boosts presence off Syria amid WMD accusations
US surveillance planes have intensified flights off the coast of Syria after Washington accused Damascus of plotting a chemical attack. Meanwhile, the aircraft carrier USS George H. W. Bush is en route to the Israeli port of Haifa.

Enthusiasts monitoring air traffic in the region have logged the flights of three types of US spy planes – the RC-135U Combat Sent, RC-135V Rivet Joint, and the P-8A Poseidon – off the coast of Syria over the past week.

All three planes were active Tuesday after the White House publicly claimed the government in Syria was preparing a chemical attack and warned Damascus would “pay a heavy price” if it was carried out.

The Rivet Joint is the US Air Force’s standard platform for gathering signals intelligence by eavesdropping on radio traffic. The Combat Sent is designed to collect intelligence on target radar systems, while the P-y is the US Navy’s newest spy platform.

The presence of all three off the coast of Syria at the same time has prompted Italy-based website The Aviationist to wonder if they were looking for something in particular.

The Israeli media, meanwhile, noted that a US aircraft carrier is about to visit Israel for the first time since 2000. The USS George H. W. Bush will be calling into port at Haifa for a four-day visit beginning July 1, according to Haaretz.

The George H. W. Bush (CVN-77) has a crew of 5,700 and carries about 90 aircraft. It has been deployed to the Persian Gulf since January in support of the war effort against Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL).

Russia has criticized the US claims of Syrian preparations for a chemical attack as unfounded and provocative, as well as an unacceptable threat to Syrian sovereignty.

"The statements on Syrian armed forces getting ready to use chemical weapons is complete nonsense,” said Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov. “These assumptions aren’t based on anything, no one provides any facts."

On Wednesday, US officials insinuated that their threats had persuaded Damascus to abandon attack plans.

"It appears that they took the warning seriously," US Defense Secretary James Mattis told reporters on his way to Brussels for a NATO meeting. "They didn't do it."

"I can tell you that due to the president's actions, we did not see an incident," said the US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley. Trump’s actions “saved many innocent men, women and children," she told the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Wednesday.

The US is keeping an eye on Syria, just in case, CNN reported, citing unnamed Pentagon officials.

In April, US President Donald Trump launched 59 Tomahawk missiles against the Shayrat Airbase in central Syria, after blaming the “Syrian regime” for an alleged attack with sarin gas on Khan Sheikhoun, a rebel-held town in Idlib province. Damascus has denied using chemical weapons against the town, while the US declined to take up the Russian offer of an international investigation at the site.