Barrage of missiles jolts Damascus residents

Syrian children, one of them holding a national flag, at a gathering to show support for the Syrian government in Umayyad Square in Damascus yesterday. Unfazed by the missile strikes, crowds of people converged on the famed square to rally behind Syr
Syrian children, one of them holding a national flag, at a gathering to show support for the Syrian government in Umayyad Square in Damascus yesterday. Unfazed by the missile strikes, crowds of people converged on the famed square to rally behind Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

DAMASCUS • Hours before dawn, a string of powerful blasts jolted awake residents of the Syrian capital.

Emerging onto their balconies, they watched Western strikes light up the sky over Damascus.

For around 45 minutes, explosions and the sound of warplanes roared over the stronghold of Syria's regime, as the United States, France and Britain carried out strikes on one target located nearby and two others near the province of Homs.

US officials said they have destroyed chemical weapons and storage facilities that were at the heart of Syria's chemical weapons programme.

They also said warplanes and ships launched a total of more than 100 missiles in an operation that US President Donald Trump and Pentagon leaders hailed as a success.

Just after the barrage of strikes began, Syria announced it was activating its air defence system. Its army said its air defences shot most of the missiles down.

But Lieutenant-General Kenneth McKenzie, the Pentagon's Joint Staff director, said at a news conference that the strikes "were able to overwhelm the Syrian air defence system".

"None of our aircraft involved were successfully engaged by Syrian defence forces," he said, adding that all three targets had been destroyed and that all warplanes had returned safely to base. He said the missiles had hit their targets within a couple of minutes at most.

Damascus resident Sawsan Abu Tableh said she heard a volley of fire in the morning, and saw plumes of thick smoke emerging from the city's north and east. "I heard the strike and woke up. I checked the Internet and read: Barefaced attack by America, France and Britain," she said, voicing support for the Syrian government.

Mr Nedher Hammoud, 48, jumped out of bed at the sound of the blasts and clambered up to his rooftop. "I went out on my roof this morning and saw the missiles being shot down like flies," he said. "History will record that Syria shot down missiles - and not just missiles. It shot down American arrogance."

Still in his pyjamas, Mr Hammoud scrambled to join the crowds of people heading to the famed Umayyad Square to rally behind Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Another resident, Ms Abu Hamra, also rushed out onto her balcony and saw streams of people heading down to central Damascus for the impromptu march as day broke.

"We don't care about Trump or a million people like him, we don't care about missiles or anything else," she told Agence France-Presse.

Draped in government flags and blaring patriotic tunes, dozens of Syrians arrived on bicycles, on foot and in cars spray painted with the red, white and black colours of the Syrian flag. A traffic jam had already started to form around the square, and young Syrians leaned out of their car windows to take selfies as military personnel looked on.

"God is protecting you, Damascus!" some called out, and others chanted in support of Mr Assad and the army.

Soldiers threw up two fingers to flash the victory sign near a car with pictures showing the President, his late father Hafez al-Assad and ally Hassan Nasrallah, who heads the Iran-backed Lebanese Shi'ite movement Hizbollah.

"Bashar, we're at your command! Let the world go up in flames!" people chanted.

Ms Amina al-Fares, 58, came to the rally dressed in black. "I lost my recently married nephew, my son, my brother's children, all for Bashar al-Assad," she said, referring to relatives killed in Syria's seven-year war.

Ms Fares said she felt the bombing early in the morning, but said she was not afraid.

"I heard the first strike, then the second, and I went out onto my balcony," she said. "Trump thought we'd be in bomb shelters, but here we are in Umayyad Square."

Mr Assad, too, appeared determined to show he was unfazed. In footage released by the presidency, he strolled through the grandiose marble halls of his office holding a briefcase, as if arriving for a normal day of work.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 15, 2018, with the headline 'Barrage of missiles jolts Damascus residents'. Print Edition | Subscribe