BEIRUT/WASHINGTON/PALM BEACH (REUTERS, AFP) – The Syrian army said a US missile attack on one of its air bases had killed six people and caused extensive damage, adding that it would respond by continuing its campaign to “crush terrorism” and restore peace and security to all of Syria.
A statement from the army command described the attack on Friday (April 7) as an act of “blatant aggression”, saying it had made the United States “a partner” of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the Nusra Front and other “terrorist organisations”.
United States President Donald Trump said earlier Friday he had ordered the missile strikes against the Syrian airfield from which a deadly chemical weapons attack was launched, declaring he acted in America’s “vital national security interest”.
In a sharp escalation of the US military role in Syria, two US warships fired dozens of cruise missiles from the eastern Mediterranean Sea at the airbase controlled by President Bashar al-Assad’s forces in response to the poison gas attack in a rebel-held area on Tuesday, US officials said.
The attack came as Mr Trump was at his Florida estate hosting Chinese president Xi Jinping, who had arrived earlier on Thursday for a summit with the US president.
In a brief televised address delivered hours after the United Nations Security Council failed to agree on a probe into the apparent chemical attack, Mr Trump confirmed the US strike on Syria and urged “all civilised nations” to unite to end the bloodshed in the country.
Mr Trump said: “Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad launched a horrible chemical weapons attack on innocent civilians ... Tonight I ordered a targeted military strike on the airfield in Syria from where the chemical attack was launched.”
“It is in the vital national security interest of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons,” he added.
Facing his biggest foreign policy crisis since taking office in January, Mr Trump took the toughest direct US action yet in Syria’s six-year-old civil war, raising the risk of confrontation with Russia and Iran, Mr Assad’s two main military backers.
US officials said they informed Russian forces ahead of the missile attacks and that there were no strikes on sections of the base where Russians were present.
But they said the administration did not seek Moscow’s approval.
Mr Trump had also personally informed Mr Xi of the strikes.
“Years of previous attempts at changing Assad’s behaviour have all failed and failed very dramatically,” Mr Trump said from his Mar-a-Lago resort.
Mr Trump ordered the strikes just a day after he pointed the finger at Mr Assad for this week’s chemical attack, which killed at least 70 people, many of them children, in the Syrian town of Khan Sheikhoun.
The Syrian government has denied it was behind the attack.
Fifty-nine Tomahawk missiles were launched from the USS Porter and USS Ross around 8.40pm EDT (8.40am Friday Singapore time), striking multiple targets – including the airstrip, aircraft and fuel stations – on the Shayrat Air Base, which the Pentagon says was used to store chemical weapons.
The strikes occurred as Mr Trump and Mr Xi were wrapping up a dinner of Dover sole and dry-aged New York strip steak.
“Initial indications are that this strike has severely damaged or destroyed Syrian aircraft and support infrastructure and equipment at Shayrat Airfield, reducing the Syrian government’s ability to deliver chemical weapons,” said Pentagon spokesman Captain Jeff Davis.
The US cruise missile 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.
The governor of Homs province where the Shayrat base is located said the strike caused several deaths but is not believed to have resulted in “big human casualties”.
“There are martyrs, but we don’t yet know the number either of martyrs or of wounded,” Talal Barazi told AFP by telephone.
He said parts of the base were on fire and some of the wounded were suffering from burns. “It will take some time to determine the extent of the damages,” he said.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group, said the attack killed four soldiers and virtually destroyed its facilities.
Syrian state TV said that “American aggression” had targeted a Syrian military base with “a number of missiles and cited a Syrian military source as saying the strike had “led to losses.”
Mr Trump appeared to have opted for measured and targeted air attacks instead of a full-blown assault on Mr Assad’s forces and installations.
“We feel the strike itself was proportionate,” said US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
According to a US defence official, Mr Trump first asked about possible military action on Wednesday, after US intelligence agencies confirmed that Syrian aircraft based at the Shayrat airbase had dropped Sarin gas on civilians.
Planning began on Wednesday and accelerated at the Pentagon, the State Department and the White House on Thursday, helped by the fact that the Defence Department had numerous off-the-shelf plans, including for cruise missile strikes on Syrian airfields.
“It was a matter of dusting those off and adapting them for the current target set and timing,” the official told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity.
THE WORLD REACTS
The relatively quick response to the chemical attack came as Mr Trump faced a growing list of global problems, from North Korea and China to Iran and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and may have been intended to send a message to friends and foes alike of his resolve to use military force if deemed necessary.
“One question is whether Russia will respond in any meaningful way,” said a senior US official involved in planning the raid. “If they do, they will be further complicit in the actions of the Syrian regime.”
The attack has put Mr Trump at odds with Russia, which has air and ground forces in Syria after intervening there on Mr Assad’s side in 2015 and turning the tide against mostly Sunni Muslim rebel groups.
Mr Trump has until now focused his Syria policy almost exclusively on defeating ISIS militants in northern Syria, where US special forces are supporting Arab and Kurdish armed groups.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the strikes inflict further “considerable damage” to US-Russia relations. “This step by Washington inflicts considerable damage to US-Russia relations, which are already in a lamentable state,” Mr Peskov said.
China called for calm in dealing with the Syrian conflict. “What is urgent now is to avoid further deterioration of the situation,” Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Hua Chunying said during a regular press briefing.
Staunch US allies Britain and Australia said they supported Mr Trump's move. Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull calling it a “proportionate and calibrated response” while British Defence Secretary Michael Fallon said Prime Minister Theresa May had been kept informed of the strikes.
France, a vocal critic of the Syrian government regime, also signalled its backing. Turkey called the US action "positive".
Israel welcomed the move. “In both word and action, President Trump sent a strong and clear message today that the use and spread of chemical weapons will not be tolerated,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said in a statement.
Indonesia - home to the world’s largest Muslim population - said it strongly condemned the use of chemical weapons in Syria but expressed concern over unilateral actions.
“At the same time, Indonesia is concerned with unilateral actions by any parties, including the use of Tomahawk missiles, in responding to the chemical weapon attack tragedy in Syria," Foreign Ministry spokesman Armanatha Nasir said in a text message.
“Military actions, undertaken without prior authorisation of the UN Security Council, are not in line with international legal principles in the peaceful settlement of disputes, as stipulated in the UN Charter.”
Iran denounced the strike. “Iran strongly condemns any such unilateral strikes... Such measures will strengthen terrorists in Syria ... and will complicate the situation in Syria and the region,” foreign ministry spokesman Bahram Qasemi was quoted as saying.
Meanwhile, US lawmakers had a mixed reaction, with some criticising Mr Trump’s decision to use force without getting their approval.
“Congress will work with the president, but his failure to seek congressional approval is unlawful,” said Senator Tim Kaine, the 2016 Democratic vice presidential candidate.
The UN Security Council was expected to hold closed-door consultations on Friday about the US strike on Syria following a request by Bolivia, an elected member of the council, a senior Security Council diplomat said.