Christopher Hope And Gordon Rayner, The Sydney Morning Herald
12 April 2018
LONDON – British Prime Minister Theresa May has ordered British submarines in the Mediterranean to move within missile range of Syria in readiness for strikes against the Assad regime by the end of this week.
Whitehall sources said Britain was "doing everything necessary" to be able to fire Tomahawk cruise missiles from nuclear-powered submarines against military targets in Syria.
One source said that "if any action is going to happen, it is going to happen before Monday".
As of Wednesday night, May had not come to a final decision on whether Britain would join the US and France in any air strikes, but the Prime Minister wants to be able to act swiftly if and when she decides to join any offensive.
The Royal Navy has three Astute-class submarines that could be heading towards Syria - HMS Ambush, HMS Artful and HMS Astute. Their Tomahawk IVs have a range
of 1600 km, meaning the subs would need to lie off the coast of Syria, Lebanon or Israel while awaiting the order to strike. Each submarine can carry 38 missiles.
The alternative would be to send one of three Trafalgar class attack submarines that have been in service since the Cold War, which can carry up to 30 missiles.
"We are moving subs in, we are doing everything necessary operationally to do that. If any action is going to happen it is going to happen before Monday because once you start having a debate about it, it will be very difficult for No 10 to do anything," a Whitehall source said.
May is understood to have resolved that any decision to join allied air strikes would have to be taken by the Cabinet rather than by Parliament, as delaying action will give Syria the chance to move its military assets near to Russian hardware, making it harder for the US or UK to get a clean strike.
There was already evidence on Wednesday of Syria trying to move its aircraft out of range. Opposition groups said the Syrian regime was shifting military vehicles away from its airbase in Hama, a potential target for American cruise missiles.
Activists also said Hezbollah, the Lebanese militant group supporting the Assad regime, was clearing its own positions near the T4 airbase in central Syria. Israeli jets reportedly struck the T4 base on Sunday night, killing 14 people, including seven Iranians in an attack first reported by Syrian state media as having been carried out by the US.
This image released early on Sunday, April 8, 2018 by the Syrian Civil Defence White Helmets, shows a child receiving oxygen through respirators following an alleged poison gas attack in the rebel-held town of Douma.
Michael Horowitz, a senior analyst at the Le Beck geopolitical consultancy, said that the regime would probably move its most sensitive equipment close to Russian forces, in the hope that the US would be less likely to risk accidentally striking Russian troops.
European air traffic controllers on Wednesday issued a "rapid alert" for airlines in the eastern Mediterranean over the possibility of air strikes into Syria within the next 72 hours.
The European Aviation Security Agency, which receives intelligence reports from classified sources, warned of possible launches of air-to-ground strikes or cruise missiles in the area.
The US does not have an aircraft carrier in the area yet, meaning strikes would have to be launched from the USS Donald Cook or the USS Porter, two US Navy destroyers already in the Mediterranean. The Donald Cook departed Larnaca, Cyprus, on Monday after completing a scheduled port visit.
The Donald Cook is one of four Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyers that generally serve Europe and are part of a Nato rotation.
Either ship could be used to launch multiple cruise missiles at sites in Syria.
The US Central Command has been updating lists of possible military and government targets in Syria, including aircraft hangars, ammunition depots and command headquarters. Defence officials said one possibility was to render Syrian airfields incapable of being used to launch future chemical attacks.
In the coming days, the USS Harry S Truman, a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, is scheduled to head to the region with a complement of strike and reconnaissance aircraft on board and surface warships sailing alongside.
Satellite photos of the Russian naval base in Tartus, Syria showed all 11 Russian battleships have left Syria.
Open-source flight tracking information revealed that a US Navy P-8A Poseidon was in the air south of Cyprus, near the Syrian coast, yesterday.
Interfax news agency reported a Nato surveillance plane was circling the northern border of Syria in Turkish airspace.