Syria airstrike puts US on collision course with Russia

US President Donald Trump orders a missile strike against a Syrian airfield, from which he says a deadly chemical weapon attack was launched. Trump declares he acted in America's 'vital national security interest' against Syrian President Assad.
US Navy guided-missile destroyer USS Ross (DDG 71) fires a tomahawk land attack missile from the Mediterranean Sea.
US Navy guided-missile destroyer USS Ross (DDG 71) fires a tomahawk land attack missile from the Mediterranean Sea.PHOTO: REUTERS

Moscow views attack as 'aggression against a sovereign nation', calls for UN council meeting

WASHINGTON • The missile strike on a Syrian airbase yesterday, the biggest foreign policy decision of Mr Donald Trump's presidency so far, catapulted the United States into a confrontation with Russia.

Russia has been a strong supporter of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, and a spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin said the strike had seriously damaged ties between Washington and Moscow.

Mr Putin regarded the US action as "aggression against a sovereign nation" on a "made-up pretext", spokesman Dmitry Peskov said. Russia demanded an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council. The council was due to meet late yesterday.

Mr Assad's office described the attack in the early hours yesterday local time as "foolish and irresponsible". State news agency Sana said at least nine civilians, including four children, were killed.

For Russia, the attack involving 59 Tomahawk missiles finally put to rest expectations from the 2016 US election campaign that Mr Trump will pursue closer ties with Mr Putin.

For North Korea, it was a warning that the US is willing to act unilaterally if necessary to curtail the North's growing nuclear weapons and missile programmes.

And for China, whose leader Xi Jinping was dining with Mr Trump right before the missiles took flight, the attack was a potent sign of the new president's unpredictability.

Mr Trump said he launched the assault to punish Mr Assad's military for the chemical weapons attack earlier this week that killed at least 70 Syrians, including children.

"Years of previous attempts at changing Assad's behaviour have all failed and failed very dramatically," Mr Trump said, as he announced the attack from his Florida resort, Mar-a-Lago, where he was meeting Mr Xi. "Even beautiful babies were cruelly murdered in this very barbaric attack," he added of Tuesday's chemical weapons attack.

The Syrian government has denied it was behind the gassing.

The launching of the missiles from two US destroyers in the Mediterranean marked a rapid change in the US stance towards Syria.

The attack is the first direct US assault on the Assad government in six years of civil war. Mr Trump had criticised former US president Barack Obama for setting a "red line" threatening force against Mr Assad if he used chemical weapons, only to pull back from ordering air strikes in 2013 when Mr Assad agreed to give up his chemical arsenal.

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the strike did not mean the wider US policy on Syria had changed. The attack was a "one-off", a US defence official told Reuters, meaning it was expected to be a single strike with no current plans for escalation.

A Russian Foreign Ministry statement said Moscow was suspending a Syrian air safety agreement with the US originally drawn up to ensure that the two countries' planes do not collide. US officials said they had informed Russian forces ahead of the strikeand had avoided hitting Russian personnel.

Satellite imagery suggested the Shayrat airbase that was struck in western Syria is home to Russian special forces and military helicopters.

Iran, which supports Mr Assad's government, said the raid was based on "bogus" chemical weapons allegations.

But Turkey, Israel and Saudi Arabia voiced support for the air strike, as did Western allies Germany, France and Britain.

China called for restraint to ensure a political solution to the Syria crisis.

REUTERS, WASHINGTON POST, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, XINHUA

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 08, 2017, with the headline 'Syria strike puts US on collision course with Russia'. Print Edition | Subscribe