The United States, the United Kingdom and France fired more than 100 missiles at Syria on Friday following evidence that Syrian President Bashar Assad was responsible for a chemical weapons attack using at least chlorine gas.
US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Marine General Joseph Dunford said three main chemical weapons facilities were targeted at 9pm EST (1am GMT) by missiles from both the sea and aircraft, which triggered Syrian air defenses. Mattis said there were no reports of US losses.
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The Pentagon could not confirm how many missiles hit their targets.
US President Donald Trump said the US is prepared to sustain economic, diplomatic and military pressure on Assad until he ends what the president called a criminal pattern of killing his own people with internationally banned chemical weapons.
“The evil and the despicable attack left mothers and fathers, infants and children, thrashing in pain and gasping for air. These are not the actions of a man; they are crimes of a monster instead,” Trump said.
Mattis, however, said the assault was a “one-time shot,” so long as Assad does not repeat his use of chemical weapons.
Mattis and Dunford acknowledged the strike was designed to degrade Syria’s chemical weapons capability without killing civilians or the many foreign fighters in Syria’s multi-sided civil war, particularly those from Russia.
“We specifically identified these targets to mitigate the risk of Russian forces being involved,” Dunford told reporters, adding the US military advised Russia of airspace that would be used in the strike but did not “pre-notify them.”
The strikes were carried out by manned aircraft and from ships that launched cruise missiles from the Mediterranean Sea.
Mattis acknowledged that the US had not yet confirmed that the most recent suspected Syrian chemical weapons attack, on April 7 in the Damascus suburb of Douma, included the use of sarin gas. He said at least one chemical was used — chlorine, which also has legitimate industrial uses and had not previously triggered a US military response.
Allegations of Assad’s chlorine use are frequent in Syria’s conflict, raising questions about whether Washington had effectively lowered the threshold for military intervention.
Last year, the United States only waged strikes in Syria after determining that more deadly sarin gas was used. Some US media had said Washington was confident Assad had also used sarin on April 7.
Mattis, however, suggested the evidence of sarin was so far inconclusive.
“We are very confident that chlorine was used. We are not ruling out sarin right now,” Mattis said.
Mattis said the targets selected by US, British and French officials were meant to minimize civilian casualties. “This is difficult to do in a situation like this,” he said, in light of the volatility of chemical agents.
The Pentagon said one of the targets was a scientific research center located in the Barzeh district of Damascus, which it described as a Syrian center for the research, development, production and testing of chemical and biological weaponry.
Syrian state media said the US-led air strikes caused material damage only at the scientific research center, destroying a building that includes a learning centre and laboratories.
The second target was a chemical weapons storage facility west of the city of Homs. “We assess that this was the primary location of Syrian sarin and precursor production equipment,” Dunford said.
The third target, which was also near Homs, contained both a chemical weapons equipment storage facility and a command post.
“The missiles that targeted a military position in Homs were thwarted and diverted from their path, and injured three civilians,” Syrian state news agency SANA reported.
US officials said there was no indication so far that Syrian air defenses struck attacking Western aircraft or ships.
“We were very precise and proportionate,” Mattis said. “But at the same time, it was a heavy strike.”
Britain: Limited and accurate attack
British Prime Minister Theresa May said in London that the West had tried “every possible” diplomatic means to stop Assad from using chemical weapons. “But our efforts have been repeatedly thwarted” by Syria and Russia, she said.
“So there is no practicable alternative to the use of force to degrade and deter the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime,” May said. “This is not about intervening in a civil war. It is not about regime change.”
— UK Prime Minister (@10DowningStreet) April 14, 2018
French President Emmanuel Macron said in a statement that a target of the strike was the Syrian government’s “clandestine chemical arsenal.”
Mattis and Dunford characterized this year’s strikes as more significant than the one waged last year, saying double the number of weapons were used this time.
Last year, 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles fired from the guided missile destroyers USS Porter and the USS Ross struck Syria’s Shayrat air base.
The targets of that strike included Syrian aircraft, aircraft shelters, petroleum and logistical storage facilities, ammunition supply bunkers, air defence systems and radar.
At the time, the Pentagon claimed that a fifth of Syria’s operational aircraft were either damaged or destroyed.
Last year’s US strike was meant to deter Assad from further use of chemical weapons. Since that did not work, a more intense attack would aim to degrade his ability to carry out further such attacks, and would try to do this by hitting Syrian aircraft, military depots and chemical facilities, among other things.
Although Syria’s military had moved aircraft and other military assets in the days preceding Friday’s strike, Dunford said he did not believe it had moved chemical weapons materials.
Mattis added that the US expects the Syrian government and its allies to conduct a “significant disinformation campaign,” which the Pentagon would rebut with additional information Saturday morning.
The air campaign could frustrate those in Trump’s base who oppose military intervention and are wary of open-ended conflicts.
Trump chastized Syria’s two main allies, Russia and Iran, for their roles in supporting “murderous dictators,” and noted that Russian President Vladimir Putin had guaranteed a 2013 international agreement for Assad to get rid of all of his chemical weapons. He called on Moscow to change course and join the West in seeking a more responsible regime in Damascus.
“Russia must decide if it will continue down this dark path, or if it will join with civilized nations as a force for stability and peace,” Trump said. “Hopefully, someday we’ll get along with Russia, and maybe even Iran — but maybe not.”
The Russian ambassador to the US, Anatoly Antonov, condemned the airstrikes and warned that “such actions will not be left without consequences.”
The strikes that hit early Saturday in Syria came hours before inspectors from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons were set to arrive to inspect the site of the apparent attack.
A broader question is whether the allied attacks are part of a revamped, coherent political strategy to end the war on terms that do not leave Assad in power.
The strikes appear to signal Trump’s willingness to draw the United States more deeply into the Syrian conflict. Just weeks ago, Trump said he wanted to end US involvement in Syria and bring American troops home to focus on the homeland. The participation of British and French forces enables Trump to assert a wider international commitment against the use of chemical weapons, but the multi-pronged attack carries the risk of Russian retaliation.
In his nationwide address, Trump stressed that he has no interest in a longtime fight with Syria.
“As other nations step up their contributions, we look forward to the day when we can bring our warriors home,” Trump said. “And great warriors they are.”
The US has about 2,000 troops on the ground in Syria as advisers to a makeshift group of anti-Islamic State fighters known as the Syrian Democratic Forces. They are in eastern Syria, far from Damascus. A US-led coalition has been conducting airstrikes in Syria since September 2014 as part of a largely successful effort to break the ISIS grip on both Syria and Iraq.
Jarrod Agen, Vice President Mike Pence’s deputy chief of staff, said Pence called congressional leaders from his hotel suite in Lima, Peru, to notify them of the president’s plan to address the nation about the Syrian air strikes.
By Ynet News, Reuters, AP