US launches missile strike on Syria in response to gas attack

The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Ross (DDG 71) departs Rota, Spain, on March 29, 2017. This was one of the ships that fired the missiles at targets in Syria on Thursday night. (Supplied US Navy photo via AP)

WASHINGTON — The US has fired 59 cruise missiles at targets in Syria two days after Bashar Assad’s regime used poison gas to kill scores of civilians, an act that drew international condemnation and that President Donald Trump called “an affront to humanity.”

“Tonight I ordered a targeted military strike on the airfield in Syria from where the chemical attack was launched,” Trump told reporters Thursday night at his Florida club, where he hosted Chinese President Xi Jinping earlier in the evening.

It is in the “vital national security interest of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons. There can be no dispute that Syria used banned chemical weapons, violated its obligations under the chemical weapons conventions.”

The limited strike early Friday morning in Syria was aimed at hangars, planes, fuel tanks ammunition storage and air-defense systems at the Shayrat Airfield, according to the Pentagon. The airfield was hit with 59 Raytheon Tomahawk cruise missiles fired from the USS Porter and USS Ross, two navy destroyers in the Mediterranean Sea.

The task of military planners was made more complicated by the presence of Russian forces in Syria to support Assad’s regime in its battle against rebel groups that include Islamic State and al-Qaeda fighters but also some backed by the US. The Pentagon notified the Russians before the strike was launched, and US military planners “took precautions to minimize risk to Russian or Syrian personnel located at the airfield”, according to Captain Jeff Davis, a Defense Department spokesman. (continues below)

US Navy supplied video shows missiles launching at targets in Syria.

Russian reaction

Vladimir Safronkov, Russia’s deputy UN ambassador, said before the strikes were made public that any US military action would have “negative consequences”.

The decision to strike marked a stark reversal for Trump, who during his presidential campaign faulted past US leaders for getting embroiled in conflicts in the Middle East. But he said this week that deaths of children among the more than 70 killed in the April 4 attack, images of which were broadcast worldwide, crossed “beyond red lines” and changed his thinking. 

“It was a slow and brutal death for so many,” Trump said Thursday. “Even beautiful babies were cruelly murdered at this very barbaric attack. No child of God should ever suffer such horror.”

It was also a departure from the approach of his predecessor, former President Barack Obama, who had weighed a military response in 2013 after Assad launched a sarin gas attack that killed more than 1,000 people near Damascus. Although he had defined the use of chemical weapons as a “red line” that would draw a US response, Obama stepped back from military action after the parliament in the UK, a crucial ally, declined to participate and public support in the US waned.

Instead the US and Russia negotiated an agreement for Assad to surrender his chemical weapons stockpile, an accord that the Syrian government appears to have breached. The US has high confidence that the attack this week used a chemical nerve gas consistent with sarin, according to an American official who asked not to be identified discussing the findings.

At the time Obama was deciding whether to attack in Syria, Trump repeatedly tweeted that the US shouldn’t get bogged down there and that Obama shouldn’t act without approval from Congress. Trump didn’t get such a formal authorization vote before Thursday night’s strike.

Senator Ben Cardin, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the strikes were “a clear signal that the United States will stand up for internationally accepted norms and rules against the use of chemical weapons.”

Congressional consultation

But he said in a statement that “any longer-term or larger military operation in Syria by the Trump administration will need to be done in consultation with the Congress.”

Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, who have long pressed for military action against Assad, said the strikes “sent an important message the United States will no longer stand idly by as Assad, aided and abetted by Putin’s Russia, slaughters innocent Syrians with chemical weapons and barrel bombs.”

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson blasted Russia’s support for Assad’s regime and said they had not kept up their end of the agreement four years ago that was supposed to clear Syria of chemical weapons stockpiles.

“Clearly Russia has failed to deliver on that commitment from 2013,” Tillerson told reporters in Florida after Trump spoke. “So either Russia has been complicit or Russia has been incompetent in its ability to deliver.”

He said other governments in the region were supportive of the US action, which he called a “proportional” response directed at facilities used in the chemical attack.

The US forces conducting the strikes were aided by surveillance photos and electronic signals of airfields, command-and-control facilities and air defense systems gleaned during thousands of aircraft sorties over Iraq and Syria since 2014, when operations began against Islamic State that later spread into Syria. When the Obama administration contemplated strikes against Syria in 2013, it also built a picture of Syria’s most vulnerable targets.

The attack was launched just as Trump wrapped up his dinner with Xi at the president’s Florida resort. In their first face-to-face meeting the two leaders were to discuss what to do about North Korea’s nuclear program and US-China trade disagreements.

Tillerson told reporters earlier on Thursday that “steps are under way” to mobilize a coalition to remove Assad, he said that effort would probably come after Islamic State terrorists in the country are defeated and some stability returns to the Middle East country.

Syria’s six-year civil war has only become more complex in recent years. Russia intervened on Assad’s behalf in late 2015, adding to a fight that now includes Iranian, Turkish, Syrian and extremist forces.

UN Debate 

At the United Nations, diplomats privately debated a resolution that would condemn the poison-gas attack and demand access to Syrian air bases by UN investigators. Russia, which has backed Assad militarily since late 2015, would probably veto that measure after putting forward a separate measure which wouldn’t compel Syria to provide such access.

At the UN Security Council on Wednesday, US Ambassador Nikki Haley stood up at her desk to show diplomats photos of dying children gasping for air. She accused Russia of pushing a “false narrative” that blames rebel forces for the attack, and issued a new warning.

Safronkov, the Russian diplomat, said he’d been “very frank” in consultations with US officials.

“We have to think of negative consequences, and all responsibility of military action will be on the shoulders of those who initiated such doubtful and tragic enterprise,” he told reporters at the UN.

Syria’s government said pilots bombed what turned out to be a rebel-controlled chemical weapons stockpile, while Russian officials on Wednesday said it’s too soon to assign blame for the attack. Nonetheless, it appeared before Thursday night’s missile strike that Russia’s support for Assad hadn’t diminished.

Tillerson’s talk of creating a coalition “gives the impression that in the West there is a rush to use the situation to take from Assad the success in turning around the situation in the country and attain their previous goal: removing him from power at any cost,” Konstantin Kosachyov, chairman of international affairs committee in the Russian parliament’s upper house, said by email.

The State Department official said Thursday afternoon that Tillerson would go to Moscow as planned for meetings with senior officials on April 12. That visit was expected to include a meeting with President Vladimir Putin.

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