President Trump ordered a military attack against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on Friday, joining allies Britain and France in launching missile strikes in retaliation for what Western nations said was the deliberate gassing of Syrian civilians, The Washington Post reports.
The coordinated strike marked the second time in a little over a year that Trump has used force against Assad, who U.S. officials believe has continued to test the West’s willingness to accept gruesome chemical attacks. Trump, speaking from the White House late Friday, said the attack last weekend was “a significant escalation” of Assad’s use of chemical weapons and warranted a stepped-up international response.
From the start, Trump was impatient for an armed strike. On Wednesday, he warned Russia and Syria about an impending attack.
“Get ready Russia, because they will be coming, nice and new and ‘smart!’” he wrote. “You shouldn’t be partners with a Gas Killing Animal who kills his people and enjoys it!”
U.S. President Donald Trump announced the military action from the White House, saying the three allies had “marshalled their righteous power against barbarism and brutality,” Reuters adds. As he spoke, explosions rocked Damascus.
British Prime Minister Theresa May described the strike as “limited and targeted” and said she had authorized the British action after intelligence indicated Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government was responsible for an attack using chemical weapons in Douma last Saturday. French President Emmanuel Macron said the strikes had been limited so far to Syria’s chemical weapons facilities. The European Union voiced support for the allies. European Council President Donald Tusk tweeted, “The EU will stand with our allies on the side of justice.”
With more than 100 missiles fired from ships and manned aircraft, the allies struck three of Syria’s main chemical weapons facilities, U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Joseph Dunford said.
The targets included a Syrian center in the greater Damascus area for the research, development, production and testing of chemical and biological weaponry as well as a chemical weapons storage facility near the city of Homs. A third target, also near Homs, contained both a chemical weapons equipment storage facility and a command post.
The attack involved munitions fired from aircraft and naval vessels, including about 100 Tomahawk cruise missiles, according to a Defense Department official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss operational details. The Pentagon also employed the B-1 strategic bomber. The assault came despite the lack of a definitive independent finding that chemical weapons were used or who had deployed them. An initial team of inspectors had only arrived in Syria on Friday.
According to The New York Times, after the missile strikes Friday night, Syrians crowded onto the streets in noisy demonstrations of defiance afterward and their allies in Russia and Iran denounced the attack. Syrian television reported that Syria’s air defenses, which are substantial, responded to the attack.
It was not immediately clear how the Syrian military responded to the attack. Russia said that Soviet-made Syrian air defenses succeeded in shooting down a significant number of cruise missiles. Shortly after the attack, the Syrian presidency posted on Twitter, “Honorable souls cannot be humiliated.”
Syrian state television said government air defense systems were responding to “the American aggression” and aired video of missiles being fired into a night sky. It reported that 13 missiles had been shot down by Syrian air defenses near Al-Kiswa, a town south of Damascus.
The strikes that hit early Saturday in Syria came hours before inspectors from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons were set to arrive to inspect the site of the apparent attack. A broader question is whether the allied attacks are part of a revamped, coherent political strategy to end the war on terms that do not leave Assad in power.
Bloomberg adds that the Pentagon said the strikes wouldn’t continue beyond Friday night, but Trump said more U.S. and allied attacks could follow further use of chemical weapons by Assad’s regime.
“The purpose of our actions tonight is to establish a strong deterrent against the production, spread and use of chemical weapons,” he said in a televised address from the White House. “We are prepared to sustain this response until the Syrian government stops its use of prohibited chemical agents.”
In his nationwide address, Trump stressed that he has no interest in a longtime fight with Syria.
“As other nations step up their contributions, we look forward to the day when we can bring our warriors home,” Trump said. “And great warriors they are.”
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said there were no reports of U.S. losses in what he described as a heavy but carefully limited assault. Mattis said the assault was a “one-time shot,” so long as Assad does not repeat his use of chemical weapons.
“This is a one-time shot and I believe it has sent a very strong message to dissuade him, to deter him. Right now we have no additional attacks planned,” Mattis said, referring to Assad.
Emboldening Trump was John Bolton, a hawkish national security adviser in his first week on the job, The Wall Street Journal reports. Bolton favored a “ruinous” attack that would cripple some part of Assad’s government and national infrastructure, according to a person familiar with his thinking. Bolton didn’t want a reprise of the U.S.’s 2017 attack on Syria, hitting an airfield that could be easily repaired.
The strikes risked pulling the United States deeper into the complex, multisided war in Syria and raised the possibility of confrontation with Russia and Iran, both of which were supporting Assad with military forces.
Within 90 minutes, the Russian ambassador to the United States warned of “consequences” for the allied attacks, The New York Times says. Trump called on Syria’s patrons in Russia and Iran to force Assad to halt the use of poison gas in the seven-year-old civil war that has wracked his country.
“To Iran and to Russia I ask: What kind of a nation wants to be associated with the mass murder of innocent men, women and children?” he said. “The nations of the world can be judged by the friends they keep. No nation can succeed in the long run by promoting rogue states, brutal tyrants and murderous dictators.”
Russia responded with sharp words.
“Again, we are being threatened. We warned that such actions will not be left without consequences. All responsibility for them rests with Washington, London and Paris,” Anatoly Antonov, the ambassador to the United States, said in a statement posted on Twitter.
Taking umbrage at Mr. Trump accusing President Vladimir V. Putin in his speech of not living up to a promise to disarm Syria of its chemical weapons, Mr. Antonov added, “Insulting the president of Russia is unacceptable and inadmissible.”
A statement from Russia’s Defense Ministry, reported by official news agencies, said none of the missiles entered airspace covered by Russian forces, and the strikes were aimed at “military and civilian infrastructure.” The ministry said more than 100 cruise missiles were fired at targets in Syria.
According to Reuters, Russian lawmaker Vladimir Dzhabarov said on Saturday that Russia was likely to call for a meeting of the United Nations Security Council to discuss U.S., British and French air strikes on Syria.
“The situation is being analysed right now. Russia will demand a meeting of the U.N. Security Council, I think, for sure,” Dzhabarov, who is the deputy head of Russia’s foreign affairs committee, was quoted by RIA as saying.
The chairman of the international affairs committee of Russia’s upper house of parliament, Konstantin Kosachev, said the strikes were a violation of international law and probably designed to prevent investigators from the global chemical weapons watchdog from doing their work.
“It’s…highly likely an attempt to create complications for the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) mission which was just starting its work in Syria’s Douma, or an attempt to completely derail it,” Interfax quoted Kosachev as saying.
U.S.-led strikes in Syria are an “important signal” to Iran, Syria and Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, a senior Israeli cabinet minister says as quoted by SBS.
“The use of chemical weapons crosses a red line that humanity can no longer tolerate. The American attack is an important signal to the axis of evil – Iran, Syria and Hezbollah,” Yoav Gallant, a member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s security cabinet, said on Twitter on Saturday.
An Israeli official said Israel was notified of the strikes ahead of time. Asked how much advanced warning Israel had received, the official told Reuters:
“Between 12 and 24 hours, I believe.”
Iran’s involvement in Syria in support of President Bashar al-Assad has alarmed Israel, which has said it would counter any threat. Iran-backed Hezbollah, which has an extensive missile arsenal, last fought a war with Israel in 2006. Syria, Iran and Russia say Israel was behind an air strike on a Syrian air base on Monday that killed seven Iranian military personnel, something Israel has neither confirmed nor denied.
On Wednesday Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and urged him to do nothing to destabilise Syria, according to a Kremlin statement. Israel has mounted air strikes in Syria on a regular basis, targeting suspected weapons shipments to Hezbollah.
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said an attack on Syria by the United States, France and Britain on Saturday was a crime and would not achieve any gains and labelled the leaders of Britain, the United States and France as criminals, Daily Mail reports.
“U.S, allies will not gain any achievements from crimes in Syria. Attacking Syria is a crime. U.S. president, UK prime minister and the president of France are criminals,” Khamenei said in a speech cited by Iranian TV.
Iran has been Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s most supportive ally against insurgents throughout the conflict. Militias backed by Iran first helped his army stem rebel advances and following Russia’s entry into the war in 2015, to turn the tide decisively in Assad’s favour. Iran’s Foreign Ministry has condemned the U.S.-led attacks on Syria and said Washington and its allies would bear responsibility for the consequences in the region and beyond, state media said.
“Undoubtedly, the United States and its allies, which took military action against Syria despite the absence of any proven evidence … will assume the responsibility for the regional and trans-regional consequences of this adventurism. Iran is opposed to the use of chemical weapons on the basis of religious, legal and ethical standards, while at the same time it … strongly condemns (using this) as an excuse to commit aggression against a sovereign state,” it said in a statement carried by state media.
Analyst Hossein Sheikholeslam, a former Iranian ambassador to Damascus, told state television the attacks would help unite Syrians behind the government.
“These attacks will stabilise the Syrian government… and unite the different tribes in Syria as Syrians become aware of their honour and come to the defence of the independence, territorial integrity and the government of their country,” Sheikholeslam said.