When the skies above Damascus lit up in the early morning hours of Saturday, shock swept through the capital. Hearing explosions and watching Syrian military surface-to-air missiles streak through the skies, many in Syria suspected a large-scale US-led intervention was underway.
“You could tell that this wasn’t your average Damascus night-time battle. It was something far bigger,” said British-born Syrian journalist Danny Makki from his home in the capital.
The skies cleared and dawn broke. It became clear that America and its allies had barked, but the bite was lacking.
The Syrian military claimed that US, British and French aircraft and ships fired around 110 missiles but that very few had hit their targets. The General Command claimed that the “Syrian Air Defense systems confronted, with high competence, the missiles of the aggression and shot down most of them.”
The Pentagon denied that any missiles were intercepted by the Syrian regime and said that strikes “successfully hit every target.”
Pictures posted on various pro-Assad social media accounts showed Syrian soldiers standing next to what was said to be the remnants of American cruise missiles. The message was clear: the airstrike have not weakened Assad, despite US President Donald Trump having gloated that he would fire “new, shiny and smart” missiles.
Meanwhile, the Russian army took a swipe at Trump. “Soviet-made” Syrian weapons, Russian general staff’s main operations department head Colonel General Sergei Rudskoi said, had repelled the attack by the US and its allies’ jets and naval ships.
The embattled Syrian president, Bashar al Assad, projected a “business as usual” attitude. Video posted on the Syrian Presidency’s Twitter page showed Assad showing up for work at one of his offices at 9 a.m. sharp. Casually walking through the hallways of what appeared to be one of his presidential palaces, his briefcase in hand, he later issued a defiant statement: “This aggression will only increase the determination of Syria and its people to continue fighting and crushing terrorism in every inch of the country.”
‘Gas Killing Animal’
Trump lashed out at Assad after the alleged chemical attack in then rebel-held Douma on April 7 which, according to opposition sources, killed more than 40 people while affecting hundreds more. In a tweet, he called Assad a “Gas Killing Animal.” The United States, Britain and France all say they have proof that chemicals were used and that it was the Assad government that used them. Assad, who is routinely condemned by the international community for war crimes, and his Russian backers deny the allegations.
President Trump’s strong words and the UN Security Council’s failure to pass a resolution after the incident led to widespread fears among Assad’s supporters that a US intervention would be strong. They were concerned it would potentially reverse the Syrian military’s gains in the past years, or even target Assad directly.
But in the morning after the limited strikes, hundreds took to the streets in Damascus to celebrate.
“Syria celebrating! Impossible for European mentality! But here Syria everything will be okay…” Russian journalist Aleksandr Karchenko wrote on his Facebook account from Damascus.
The feeling among many supporters of Assad and his military is that the latest airstrikes were symbolic rather than game-changing, that Trump issued wide-ranging threats and tough tweets, but then blinked. The intervention will not change the momentum that had swung in favor of Assad in Syria’s seven-year-long civil war that had claimed 400,000 lives when the UN stopped updating the death toll in 2014.
After condemning the airstrikes, Syria’s foreign ministry issued a statement promising Damascus would continue its military campaign against the opposition, which it classifies as Takfiri, or extremist. The US-led strikes, the statement said, “will not affect the determination and will of the Syrian people and their armed forces to continue pursuing the remnants of Takfiri terrorism and defending Syria’s sovereignty.”