The US, UK and France hit targets in Syria in retaliation for an apparent chemical weapons attack outside Damascus by Bashar al-Assad’s regime. The US allies sought to shore up international support on Saturday after overnight strikes.
President Donald Trump said that missile strikes focussed on chemical weapons sites, and the Pentagon said a research center and weapons storage site were hit. It wasn’t possible to immediately confirm the targets and the US didn’t release an assessment of the attack.
The Pentagon said the strikes wouldn’t continue beyond, but Trump said more US and allied attacks
could follow further use of chemical weapons by Assad’s regime.
“The purpose of our actions tonight is to establish a strong deterrent against the production, spread and use of chemical weapons,” he said from the White House. “We are prepared to sustain this response until the Syrian government stops its use of prohibited chemical agents.”
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.
“This is a one-time shot and I believe it has sent a very strong message to dissuade him, to deter him,” Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said, referring to Assad. He added that there were no reports of losses. The UK Defense Ministry said the strikes were “successful.”
“Right now we have no additional attacks planned,” Mattis added.
Trump blasted Iran and Russia for supporting Assad’s regime, particularly in the wake of the suspected chemical attack.
“To Iran and to Russia I ask: What kind of a nation wants to be associated with the mass murder of innocent men, women and children?” he said. “The nations of the world can be judged by the friends they keep.”
The Russian ambassador to the US, Anatoly Antonov, condemned the strikes, saying Moscow’s warnings weren’t heeded.
“Again, we are being threatened,” he said in a statement posted on Twitter. “We warned that such actions will not be left without consequences.”
US officials said they gave Russia no specific warnings of the attacks or the targets, but used the usual hotline with Moscow’s military to ensure the airspace was clear.
Still, French Defense Minister Florence Parly told reporters early Saturday that the country was not seeking a military escalation and had, with its allies, “made sure that the Russians were warned ahead.”
A statement from Russia’s Defense Ministry, reported by official news agencies, said none of the missiles entered airspace covered by Russian forces, and the strikes were aimed at “military and civilian infrastructure.” The ministry said more than 100 cruise missiles were fired at targets in Syria. Syria air defenses responded to American-led “aggression” that was a “flagrant violation of international law,” according to the state-run SANA news agency. Several incoming missiles were hit, it added.
Syria’s Observatory for Human Rights, a group monitoring the conflict, reported the strikes targeted several military bases, Republican Guards locations and the Scientific Studies Research Center.
SANA reported at least three civilians were wounded. In Damascus, it seemed like a fairly ordinary on Saturday, except for small rallies in praise of Assad that formed in traffic circles and around fountains. Nationalist songs were played and people waved flags.
“Instead of weakening the government, it only made it stronger,” he said of Assad’s regime.
UK Prime Minister Theresa May said the strikes were “not about intervening in a civil war. It is not about regime change.” Rather, she said, they were intended to deter future chemical attacks. French President Emmanuel Macron added in his own statement, “Our response has been limited to the capacities of the Syrian regime allowing the production and use of chemical weapons.”
Putin slams ‘act of aggression’ in Syria but avoids escalation
Russian President Vladimir Putin denounced strikes on Syria by the US, France and the UK as an “act of aggression” but made no mention of possible retaliation for the highly anticipated attack on his Middle Eastern ally, easing for the moment fears of a wider conflict.
The dozens of missiles and bombs fired at a handful of sites early on Saturday didn’t enter airspace guarded by advanced systems above Russian bases near the coast, the Defense Ministry in Moscow said. There were no casualties, either Syrian or Russian,
or serious damage inflicted, the ministry said.
Putin’s top military commander last month warned that Russian forces would shoot down any missiles and their launchers that threaten its personnel, fuelling fears a major US barrage could escalate. But the strikes, though larger than those President Donald Trump ordered a year ago, were limited to a few targets linked to Syria’s chemical-weapons programme, according to US officials.
“We’re not talking about a direct military conflict between Russia and the US,” said Andrei Klimov, deputy chairman of the international affairs committee in the upper house of parliament in Mosow. “The Americans and their allies did everything to make sure they didn’t hit Russian units.”
There were no immediate plans for more attacks, Defense Secretary James Mattis said. Saturday’s action didn’t seem likely to threaten the Syrian regime’s survival, a key Kremlin priority. Putin said in a statement that the military action “against a sovereign state” violated international law.
General Sergei Rudskoi told reporters in the Russian capital that Syrian forces using Soviet-designed systems intercepted 71 of the 103 cruise missiles launched, including at six airfields, a claim that couldn’t be independently verified. The US didn’t immediately provide an assessment of performance.
The limited scope of the brief campaign showed that Moscow’s warnings had worked, according to Klimov, the Russian senator.