WASHINGTON (THE WASHINGTON POST, XINHUA, BLOOMBERG, AFP, REUTERS, NYTIMES) - US, British and French forces pounded Syria with air strikes early on Saturday (April 14) in response to the deliberate gassing of Syrian civilians last week, in the biggest intervention by Western powers against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The air strikes at multiple targets began around 9pm Eastern Time and saw US, French and British assets firing missiles at the Assad regime’s chemical production facilities.
They targeted a scientific research facility in the Damascus area, a chemical weapons storage facility west of the city of Homs and a third location that contained both a command post and a chemical weapons equipment storage facility in the same area, the US military said.
Loud explosions were heard in the Syrian capital, Damascus. Syrian state TV said the army’s air defences were confronting an attack by the United States, France and Britain.
A witness said the Barzah district of Damascus had been hit in the strikes. Barzah is the location of a major Syrian scientific research centre.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said a total of three scientific research centres had been hit in the attacks - two in Damascus and one in the Homs area – in addition to military bases in Damascus.
The Observatory said all the bases and facilities struck in the attack had been evacuated by the Syrian government earlier this week.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said military bases in Damascus were also struck in the attack.
The Syrian army’s Republican Guard and 4th Division, elite units of the Syrian military, were struck in the attack.
The coordinated strike marked the second time in a year that US President Donald Trump has used force against Mr Assad, who US officials believe has continued to test the West’s willingness to accept gruesome chemical attacks.
Mr Trump announced the strikes in an address to the nation on Friday evening.
“A short time ago I ordered the United States armed forces to launch precision strikes” on targets associated with Syria chemical weapons, Mr Trump said.
“These are not the actions of a man. They are crimes of a monster instead,” Mr Trump said, referring to Mr Assad and his role in the chemical weapons attacks.
“The purpose of our actions tonight is to establish a strong deterrent against the production, spread and use of chemical weapons,” Mr Trump said.
“A combined operation with the armed forces of France and the United Kingdom is now under way. We thank them both. This massacre was a significant escalation in a pattern of chemical weapons use by that very terrible regime.”
A US official said the strikes had targeted chemical production facilities. Another official said multiple types of bombs were used, and a variety of targets chosen.
“We are prepared to sustain this response until the Syrian regime stops its use of prohibited chemical agents,” Mr Trump said.
US Defence Secretary James Mattis said the air strikes were a “one time shot” to send a strong message to Syrian President Assad.
“Right now, this is a one-time shot and I believe it has sent a very strong message to dissuade him, to deter him,” General Mattis said, adding that there were no reports of losses.
The Pentagon chief stressed the strikes were carefully calibrated to provide a strong response to the suspected chemical attack, but avoid pulling the West into Syria’s civil war.
“The targets tonight again were specifically designed to degrade the Syrian war machine’s ability to create chemical weapons and to set that back,” Gen Mattis said.
“There were no attempts to broaden or expand that target set.”
President Donald Trump’s decision to strike Syria in response to a suspected chemical attack came a year after he ordered military action against Mr Assad following a deadly sarin gas attack on the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhoun.
“Clearly, the Assad regime did not get the message last year,” Gen Mattis said.
“This time, the allies struck harder. We sent a clear message to Assad,” he added, noting that double the number of weapons were deployed compared to last year, when 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles were fired at Shayrat air base.
The air strikes appeared to last about an hour. Gen Mattis said no additional attacks were planned.
Of the recent chemical weapons attack on the town of Douma, Gen Mattis said: “We are very confident that chlorine was used. We are not ruling out sarin right now.”
“It is time for all civilised nations to urgently unite in ending the Syrian civil war by supporting the United Nations backed Geneva peace process,” Gen Mattis said.
General Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters that naval and air forces from the three countries struck three primary targets, including a chemical weapons research facility outside Damascus and a weapons storage facility near Homs.
He said the strikes were designed to minimise the risk of civilian casualties. The targets were also chosen to minimise the risk of accidentally hitting Russian troops stationed in Syria, according to Gen Dunford.
A US official familiar with the military planning said there could be more air strikes if the intelligence indicates that Mr Assad has not stopped manufacturing, importing, storing or using chemical weapons, including weaponised chlorine.
The official acknowledged that could require a more sustained US air and naval presence in the region, as well as intensified satellite and other surveillance of Syria.
The US President also blasted Iran and Russia for supporting Mr Assad’s regime, particularly in the wake of the chemical attack.
“To Iran and to Russia, I ask what kind of nation wants to be associated with the mass murder of innocent men women and children,” he said in his televised address from the White House.
“Russia must decide if it will continue down this dark path or if it will join with civilised nations as a force for stability and peace,” he argued.
But the President also made clear that the US actions has limits and that the US commitment to acting in the Middle East has limits.
“We will try to make it better,” Mr Trump said. ”But the Middle East is a troubled place.”
A short while later, Prime Minister Theresa May announced that Britain had also joined in the strikes on Syria, asserting that there was no alternative to the use of force.
“This evening I have authorised British armed forces to conduct coordinated and targeted strikes to degrade the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons capability and deter their use,” she said in a statement.
"This is the first time as Prime Minister that I have had to take the decision to commit our armed forces in combat – and it is not a decision I have taken lightly,” she said.
“I have done so because I judge this action to be in Britain’s national interest. We cannot allow the use of chemical weapons to become normalised – within Syria, on the streets of the UK, or anywhere else in our world.”
“This is not about intervening in a civil war. It is not about regime change,” Mrs May said. “It is about a limited and targeted strike that does not further escalate tensions in the region and that does everything possible to prevent civilian casualties.”
Britain's Defence Ministry said four Tornado jets had carried out the attack using Storm Shadow missiles on a military facility some 24km west of Homs, some distance from known concentrations of civilian habitation.
“Very careful scientific analysis was applied to determine where best to target the Storm Shadows to maximise the destruction of the stockpiled chemicals and to minimise any risks of contamination to the surrounding area,” the Defence Ministry said in a statement.
“Initial indications are that the precision of the Storm Shadow weapons and meticulous target planning have resulted in a successful attack,” the ministry said.
“The facility which was struck is located some distance from any known concentrations of civilian habitation, reducing yet further any such risk,” it added.
Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson said in the statement that the strikes were a “legal and proportionate” response to the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime.
French President Emmanuel Macron also announced that the French military was participating in the strikes.
“We cannot tolerate the normalisation of the use of chemical weapons,” he said in a statement issued shortly after explosions were heard in Syria’s capital.
For Mr Macron, “the facts and the responsibility of the Syrian regime are not in doubt,” concerning the “deaths of dozens of men, women and children” in what he said was a chemical weapons attack on April 7 in Douma.
“The red line set by France in May 2017 has been crossed,” he said.
“I have ordered the French army to intervene tonight as part of the international operation in coalition with the US and Britain directed against the secret chemical arsenal of the Syrian regime,” he said.
Mr Macron, who tweeted a picture of himself in a meeting room with military and diplomatic advisers, said a debate about France’s military involvement would take place in Parliament.
Russia’s ambassador to the United States warned that there would be consequences for the US-led military strikes on Syria, adding that it was not acceptable to insult Russia’s President.
“A pre-designed scenario is being implemented,” Russian Ambassador Anatoly Antonov said on Twitter. “Again, we are being threatened. We warned that such actions will not be left without consequences.”
“Insulting the President of Russia is unacceptable and inadmissible,” he added. “The US – the possessor of the biggest arsenal of chemical weapons – has no moral right to blame other countries.”
Russia's Defence Ministry said none of the rockets launched in the attack entered zones where Russian air defence systems are protecting facilities at Tartus and Hmeimim.
Iran warned of “regional consequences” following the wave of punitive strikes.
“The United States and its allies have no proof and, without even waiting for the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons to take a position, have carried out this military attack... and are responsible for the regional consequences,” said Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Ghasemi on his Telegram channel.
An Israeli official said on Saturday that the US-led strikes have enforced a red line set for President Assad on the use of chemical weapons.
“Last year, President Trump made clear that the use of chemical weapons crosses a red line. Tonight, under American leadership, the United States, France and the United Kingdom enforced that line,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“Syria continues to engage in and provide a base for murderous actions, including those of Iran, that put its territory, its forces and its leadership at risk,” the official said.
The US and its allies fired more than 100 cruise missiles at Syria, a significant number of which were intercepted by Syrian air defences, the Russian Defence Ministry said.
“More than 100 cruise missiles and air-to-land missiles were fired by the US, Britain and France from the sea and air at Syrian military and civilian targets,” the ministry said in a statement quoted by RIA Novosti news agency, adding that “a significant number” were shot down by Syrian air defences.
Syria’s air defences “were made in the USSR more than 30 years ago", the ministry said.
Russian air defences based in Syria were not used, the ministry said.
It said that none of the Western strikes in Syria had hit areas covered by Russia’s air defences around its Hmeimim air base and naval facility in Tartus.
The Russian military said the missiles were fired from US ships in the Red Sea as well as from tactical aircraft above the Mediterranean and by US strategic bombers from near the Al-Tanf base.
Syrian state television said government air defence systems were responding to “the American aggression” and aired video of missiles being fired into a dark night sky.
It was not clear if they hit anything. It reported that 13 missiles had been shot down by Syrian air defences near Al-Kiswa, a town south of Damascus.
State news agency SANA said three civilians were wounded in the Homs attacks, but did not give a toll for Damascus or mention any combatant casualties.
Several missiles hit a research centre in Barzeh, north of Damascus, “destroying a building that included scientific labs and a training centre,” SANA reported.
State media published images of a cloud of reddish smoke hanging over the capital.
But it said skies were clear over Aleppo in the north, Hasakeh in the north-east, and Latakia and Tartus along the western coast, where key Syrian and Russian military installations are located.
The US-led attack on Syria will be seen as limited if it is now over and there is no second round of strikes, said a senior official in the regional alliance that has supported President Assad in the Syrian war.
“If it is finished, and there is no second round, it will be considered limited,” the official told Reuters.
The official said the Syrian government and its allies have "absorbed" the US-led attack and the targeted sites were evacuated days ago thanks to a warning from Russia.
“We have absorbed the strike”, the official told Reuters.
“We had an early warning of the strike from the Russians ... and all military bases were evacuated a few days ago,” the official said.
Around 30 missiles were fired in the attack, and a third of them were shot down, the official said.
“We are carrying out an assessment of the material damages,” the official added.
Syrian state TV said the attack was being confronted by the pro-Damascus “anti-terror axis”, a phrase suggesting that Mr Assad’s foreign allies, Iran and Russia, may be helping to defend Syria.
“The tripartite aggression is a flagrant violation of international law,” state news agency SANA said.
The head of Nato expressed his support for the Western strikes on Saturday. “I support the actions taken by the United States, the United Kingdom and France... This will reduce the regime’s ability to further attack the people of Syria with chemical weapons,” Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said in a statement.
Mr Stoltenberg said the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons was “a clear breach of international norms and agreements”.
“Nato considers the use of chemical weapons as a threat to international peace and security, and believes that it is essential to protect the Chemical Weapons Convention,” the statement added.
“This calls for a collective and effective response by the international community.”
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called for restraint and for countries to avoid any acts that could escalate the situation in Syria.
“I urge all member states to show restraint in these dangerous circumstances and to avoid any acts that could escalate the situation and worsen the suffering of the Syrian people,” Mr Guterres said in a statement.
The assault followed repeated threats of military action from Mr Trump, who has been moved by civilian suffering to set aside his concerns about foreign military conflicts, since the reported chemical attack that killed civilians in the rebel-held town outside Damascus last weekend.
The operation capped nearly a week of debate in which Pentagon leaders voiced concerns that an attack could pull the United States into Syria’s civil war and trigger a dangerous conflict with Assad ally Russia – without necessarily halting chemical attacks.
Both Syria and Russia have denied involvement in the attack, which Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov alleged had been staged.
The episode is the latest illustration of the hazards arising from a conflict that has killed an estimated half-million people and drawn in world powers since it began as a peaceful uprising in 2011.
The attack raised the possibility of retaliation by Russia or Iran, which also provides military support to Mr Assad, threatening in particular to increase the risks facing a force of 2,000 Americans in Syria, as part of the battle against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
While the United States has not been at war with the Syrian government, US troops often operate in proximity to those from Iranian- or Russian-backed groups.
In the wake of last weekend’s gruesome attack, some US officials advocated a larger, and therefore riskier, strike than the limited action Mr Trump had ordered in April 2017, also in response to suspected chemical weapons use.
That attack involved 59 Tomahawk missiles fired from two US warships in the Mediterranean Sea. It fulfilled Mr Trump’s vow that chemical weapons are a “red line” that he, unlike his predecessor Barack Obama, would not allow Mr Assad to cross.
But the airfield targeted by the Pentagon resumed operations shortly after the attack and, according to Western intelligence assessments, chemical attacks resumed.
Mr Assad’s defiance has presented Mr Trump with a choice of whether to make a larger statement and incur a larger risk this time. Planning for these strikes focused on ways to curb Mr Assad’s ability to use such weapons again.
Risks of a wider attack include the possibility of a dangerous escalation with Russia, whose decision to send its military to Syria in 2015 reversed the course of the war in Mr Assad’s favour.
Since then, Russia has used Syria as a testing ground for some of its most sophisticated weaponry.
“Get ready Russia, because they will be coming, nice and new and ‘smart!’ ” Mr Trump tweeted on Wednesday, referring to US missiles.
That took miliary officials by surprise. But on Thursday, Mr Trump said he did not mean to suggest missile strikes were imminent.
“Never said when an attack on Syria would take place,” he tweeted. “Could be very soon or not so soon at all!”
A larger strike, possibly including stealth aircraft and strikes on multiple sites, could inflict lasting damage to military facilities and economic infrastructure that have been vital to Mr Assad’s ability to gain the upper hand in a seven-year civil war.
Since last year’s strike, multiple chemical attacks have been reported in opposition areas, most of them involving chlorine rather than the nerve agent sarin, as was used in 2017, suggesting the government may have adjusted its tactics.
Among the chief factors military planners must consider are air defences in Syria, which were bolstered by Russia’s decision to enter the war in 2015 and could pose a threat should the Pentagon employ manned aircraft in the attack.
Their reach was demonstrated in February when an Israeli F-16 fighter jet crashed amid Syrian anti-aircraft fire.
The United States has flown an array of aircraft over Syria since it began strikes against ISIS in 2014, but those operations have mostly steered clear of government and Russian activities.
The Assad regime has not authorised the US operations, but it also has not tried to shoot down American aircraft.