The Syrian regime has relocated the majority of its combat planes to protect them from potential US strikes, CNN reported Wednesday after receiving the information from two US defense officials.
The move places the Syrian aircraft in close proximity to Russia's Khmeimim Air Base in Latakia Governorate—where the majority of Russian air forces helping President Bashar al-Assad's regime are based.
The Khmeimim base, along with a naval facility in Tartus, is one of the two of the primary Russian military installations in Syria. The Russians have reportedly stationed advanced anti-aircraft missile systems at the base.
The move may stem from the Syrian regime's belief that the US would be more reluctant to strike in close proximity to the Russian troops and their anti-aircraft systems. One US defense official told CNN that the warplanes moved appeared to make up most, if not all, of the Syrian regime's operational aircraft.
The relocation of the warplanes began shortly after the US's April 6 Tomahawk cruise missile strike on Sharat air base, which destroyed 24 Syrian warplanes in retaliation for a chemical weapons attack in Idlib that the US says the Syrian army launched from that airfield.
The US warned Moscow via a pre-established communications channel in advance of its cruise missile strike in order to prevent any Russian casualties.
US defense officials have previously said that its retaliatory strike incapacitated about a fifth of the regime's operational fixed-wing aircraft, making the preservation of the remaining planes of the utmost importance to the Syrian regime.
"The Syrian Air Force is not in good shape. It's been worn down by years of combat plus some ... significant maintenance problems," US Secretary of Defense Gen. James Mattis told reporters at the Pentagon.
The US has not ruled out additional strikes against the regime should it opt to use chemical weapons in the future.
"The Syrian regime should think long and hard before it again acts so recklessly in violation of international law against the use of chemical weapons," Mattis said, later adding that "if they use chemical weapons, they are going to pay a very, very stiff price."