WASHINGTON • As images of sick or dying children flooded global media all week, the US guided-missile destroyer USS Winston Churchill churned towards the Mediterranean to join a flotilla of allied warships, including another US destroyer, the USS Donald Cook.
It was a ruse.
While both vessels carry as many as 90 Tomahawk missiles - the main weapon used in Saturday's strike on Syria - neither ship fired a shot.
Instead, according to a person familiar with White House war planning, they were part of a plan to distract Russia and its Syrian ally from an assault that President Bashar al-Assad's government could do little to defend itself against. The ruse worked, it is being claimed.
Pentagon officials said on Saturday that they faced little resistance to their targeted attack on what they said were three Syrian chemical weapons facilities. Most of the Syrian countermeasures, including defensive ballistic missiles, were fired after US and allied weapons hit their targets, said Lieutenant-General Kenneth McKenzie.
As the strategy of how to respond to the Assad regime's alleged use of chemical weapons took shape, President Donald Trump appeared to telegraph his intentions to the world with a tweet on April 11: "Russia vows to shoot down any and all missiles fired at Syria. Get ready Russia, because they will be coming, nice and new and 'smart!'"
Analysts suggested that Syria would respond to Mr Trump's threats by protectively moving weapons and personnel away from likely targets. An already difficult battle plan - which required hitting Syria without provoking Russian reprisals or injecting the US further into Syria's seven-year civil war - was getting harder.
At a meeting with the National Security Council and top military leaders earlier last week, Mr Trump was presented with five large target options - called sets - for potential strikes, according to the person familiar with the plans. The President largely listened as Pentagon chief James Mattis, Marine Corps General Joe Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and other military leaders did most of the talking. New National Security Adviser John Bolton was also on hand.
With the allies on board and the USS Winston Churchill arriving in the Mediterranean region, the attack was nearly under way.
As the President addressed the nation, a barrage of 105 US, British and French missiles converged on Syria. They came from the Red Sea, the Arabian Gulf and the Mediterranean, homing in from three directions to overwhelm whatever missile defences Syria might deploy.
According to the Pentagon, the allied weaponry included 19 new "Extended-Range" stealthy Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Attack Munitions launched by two B-1B bombers based out of Al Udeid airbase in Qatar, and six Tomahawk cruise missiles launched from the USS John Warner submarine. The bomber-launched missiles had never been used in combat.
The cruiser USS Monterey fired 30 Tomahawks and the destroyer USS Laboon fired seven Tomahawks from the Red Sea. The destroyer USS Higgins fired 23 Tomahawks from the North Arabian Gulf, according to Lt-Gen McKenzie.