TAMPA — Officials at U.S. Central Command in Tampa, architects of the Tomahawk cruise missile attack on a Syrian airbase Thursday, are waiting to see how the Syrians and their Russian and Iranian allies will react.
The attack plan likely was drawn up by CentCom under the Obama administration, which — like President Donald Trump this week — faced its own decision about whether to retaliate against Syria's use of deadly chemical weapons, one analyst told the Tampa Bay Times.
This time, the United States acted when two U.S. Navy ships in the Mediterranean Sea fired 59 missiles, hitting some 20 targeted Syrian aircraft and associated infrastructure, a CentCom spokesman told the Times.
"If anything happens at all, the Russians might hammer one of the insurgent groups we support," said Randy Rosin, a retired Army colonel who ran the CentCom information operations division from 2010 to 2012. "Nothing directly at us. Syrians will follow Russia's lead. If they do something, they risk the U.S. really opening a can of 'whoopa--' on them."
The Russians, who have backed the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad with sophisticated aircraft and weaponry against opposition including al-Qaida and the Islamic State, condemned the U.S. attack. They also threatened to pull out of a special communications system that the United States used to warn them about the attack on the Shayat airbase.
Another expert, retired Green Beret Lt. Col. Rob Schaefer of St. Petersburg, agreed that Russia is unlikely to respond in kind.
"They are going to be consistent with things they have always done," said Schaefer, who served at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow and wrote a 2010 book on insurgencies against Russia that's considered a primer on what the country has taught its Syrian allies.
The Russians will "ramp up rhetoric and find opportunities later on to assert their role in the area by doing something else," Schaefer said.
That might mean hitting back at the United States by attacking its rebel allies.
"Anytime the Russians can get this kind of drama, and say what they are saying, it keeps them relevant and center stage," he said. "This is a good thing from Putin's point of view."
Greg Celestan, a retired Army lieutenant colonel from Tampa who was a Russian expert in the CentCom intelligence directorate, said Russan President Vladimir Putin is in a tough place.
On one hand, he understands that the United States enjoys military superiority and more allies in the region, including the Sunni gulf states, said Celestan, who also served in Russia and learned from his counterparts there.
But on the other hand, he has to show the world that he stands behind his own ally.
If Putin "lets Assad collapse without any help, it sends a bad message to allies in Eastern Europe and Central Asia," Celestan said.
Shutting down the communications system, he added, would have hurt everyone.
"It has a lot of potential for danger. No one wants to see a situation where the U.S. and Russian military are firing at each other."
The Iranians, whom U.S. military officials consider the biggest threat in the region, are a wildcard, said Rosin, the former CentCom officer who now lives in Bethesda, Md.
"A big danger is if Iran uses one of their proxies in Iraq against U.S. forces to retaliate," he said. "This would give plausible deniability to Syria or Russia and perhaps even to Iran and at the same time impose a consequence for U.S. actions."
The attack plan that was okayed by President Donald Trump likely was developed at CentCom when President Barack Obama faced a decision in 2013 about retaliating for chemical attacks by Assad's forces, Rosin said.
"I'm thinking that this strike was planned way back in the day when President Obama first contemplated his red line and asked the Defense Department to develop options," he said. "For certain, this was one of those options. Something like this doesn't come from scratch in 48 hours."
CentCom, he said, developed a wide range of plans assessing risk factors. An attack like the one on the Shayrat airbase would be considered medium- to low-risk in terms of loss of U.S. life or assets.
"Since we didn't execute this plan under Obama, it was probably fully developed but shelved," Rosin said. "My guess is that Trump asked for options and DoD quickly brushed off the plan."
Army Gen. Joseph Votel, the CentCom commander, had a lot to consider before signing off on the attack said one of his predecessors.
"What do they want to achieve?" asked William Fallon, the retired admiral who commanded CentCom from 2007 to 2008. "What are the objectives? How does this fit into the bigger picture and what is the desired outcome? Then you go back and look for options, look at what you have, weight the odds of success, what the cost might be, the confidence that you are able to get the desired results, put people on alert, brief the leadership, answer questions, get your own questions answered and then execute it and give it your best shot."
Though not privy to classified details, Fallon said he has a good idea of the purpose of the Tomahawk attack.
"It was a very strong message that this won't be tolerated again."
Contact Howard Altman at [email protected] or (813) 225-3112. Follow @haltman.