US 'locked and loaded' if Syria uses toxic gas again

The guided-missile cruiser USS Monterey fires a Tomahawk land attack missile on April 14, 2018.
The guided-missile cruiser USS Monterey fires a Tomahawk land attack missile on April 14, 2018. PHOTO: US DEPARTMENT OF DEFENSE

Warning comes after US and allies bomb chemical weapons sites; no casualties reported

WASHINGTON/BEIRUT • US President Donald Trump declared it was "mission accomplished" after the United States, British and French forces struck Syria yesterday with more than 100 missiles in the first coordinated Western attack against the Damascus government.

The escalation was quickly met with strong words from Syria's backers Iran and Russia, with Russian President Vladimir Putin calling the strikes an "act of aggression against a sovereign state".

But he did not say what Moscow would do in retaliation.

The bombings in the early hours of the morning in Syria hit what the three allies said were chemical weapons sites - a chemical weapons storage and production facility, a chemical weapons research centre and a military bunker - in retaliation for a suspected poison gas attack on the Damascus suburb of Douma on April 7, which killed dozens. There were no immediate reports of casualties, with Damascus' allies saying the buildings hit had been evacuated in advance.

During a United Nations Security Council meeting held at Russia's request to discuss the strikes, the US warned that it was "locked and loaded", ready to launch more military strikes on Syria if President Bashar al-Assad's forces carry out a new chemical weapons attack.

"If the Syrian regime uses this poisonous gas again, the United States is locked and loaded," US Ambassador Nikki Haley said. "When our President draws a red line, our President enforces the red line."

Russia circulated a draft resolution calling for condemnation of the military action.

"Russia in the most serious way condemns the attack on Syria where Russian military servicemen help the legitimate government to fight terrorism," Mr Putin said in a statement on the Kremlin website.

Russia, which had promised to respond to any attack on its ally, earlier said that Syrian air defences had intercepted 71 of the missiles fired. But the Pentagon said the Syrian air defence systems had been largely ineffective, and there was no indication that Russian systems had been employed.

China, one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, said unilateral military action bypassing the council would "add new complicating factors to the resolution of the Syrian issue".

In a statement by its foreign ministry spokesman Hua Chunying, it called for a "return to the framework of international law" and said it was "opposed to the use of force".

Announcing the military action from the White House, Mr Trump said the three allies had "marshalled their righteous power against barbarism and brutality".

British Prime Minister Theresa May described the strike as "limited and targeted", with no intention of toppling Mr Assad or intervening more widely in the war.

She said she authorised British action after intelligence showed Mr Assad's government was to blame for the April 7 chemical attack.

The combined strike is the most significant attack against President Assad's government by Western powers in the seven years of Syria's civil war. But analysts said it remains to be seen if the attack will deter Mr Assad from using poison gas on his people again.

A US strike last year when 59 missiles were fired in response to the use of poison gas on civilians failed to deter him. But there was a clear warning that if the Assad regime resorts to chemical weapons again, then further strikes may well follow. "We are prepared to sustain this response until the Syrian regime stops its use of prohibited chemical agents," Mr Trump said in a televised address as the attacks were being carried out.

Syrian state media called the attacks a "flagrant violation of international law". Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called it a crime and the Western leaders criminals. Inspectors from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons were due to visit Douma yesterday to inspect the site of the suspected gas attack.

Moscow condemned the Western states for refusing to wait for their findings.

REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, BLOOMBERG

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 15, 2018, with the headline 'US 'locked and loaded' if Syria uses toxic gas again'. Print Edition | Subscribe