Syrian town hit in gas attack bombed again
No chemicals reported, but woman killed despite U.S. missiles
BEIRUT — Residents of the Syrian town devastated by a chemical weapons attack Tuesday said warplanes had returned to bomb them Saturday, despite a U.S. missile barrage and warnings of possible further response.
At least 87 people in the northwestern town of Khan Sheikhoun were killed Tuesday in a chemical attack that left hundreds choking or foaming at the mouth. Witnesses and a monitoring group, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said Saturday that fresh attacks on the area — now a virtual ghost town — had killed one woman and wounded several others.
Residents cowered in bedrooms and basements Saturday, underscoring the apparently unchanged threat they faced from the Syrian government’s arsenal of rockets, barrel bombs and other weapons.
In retaliation for Tuesday’s chemical assault, President Donald Trump ordered a missile strike on a Syrian airfield housing a jet fleet responsible for extensive bombing across northern Syria.
Trump on Saturday praised the U.S. military for carrying out the missile attack and struck back at mounting questions over whether it would help achieve a momentum shift in Syria’s civil war.
In an afternoon tweet, Trump defended the operation against criticism from some members of Congress and military analysts that the nighttime volley of 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles did not target the runways at the Shayrat air base.
Administration officials have said the attack successfully destroyed refueling stations, hangars and some planes.
“The reason you don’t generally hit runways is that they are easy and inexpensive to quickly fix (fill in and top)!” Trump wrote on Twitter from Mar-a-Lago in Florida.
Thursday’s missile barrage was the first direct military action the U.S. has taken against Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government in the six-year-long conflict. Although Trump warned of possible further intervention, the Pentagon has said no other strikes against government targets are planned.
Monitoring groups reported Saturday that jets were taking off from the bombed Shayrat air base, this time to attack Islamic State positions.
There were also reports of Syrian government and Russian airstrikes across the provinces of Damascus, Aleppo, Idlib and Daraa, all killing civilians. However, there were no reports of further use of chemical weapons.
“The American strikes did nothing for us. They can still commit massacres at any time,” said Majed Khattab, speaking by phone from Khan Sheikhoun. “People are really afraid.”
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu described Trump’s decision to retaliate as welcome, but not enough.
“If this intervention is limited only to an air base, if it does not continue and if we don’t remove the regime from heading Syria, then this would remain a cosmetic intervention,” he said.
A longtime backer of Syria’s armed opposition, Turkey is now overseeing a stuttering peace process in the Kazakh capital, Astana.
Elsewhere in the region, a leading Iraqi Shiite cleric and militia leader, Moqtada al-Sadr, called on Assad to step down and “save Syria before it’s too late.”
In a sign of the continuing diplomatic fallout from the chemical attack and the U.S. response, British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson announced Saturday that he had canceled a planned visit to Moscow.
Johnson was to fly to Moscow on Monday to meet his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, in what would have been the first such meeting since 2012. But Johnson said in a statement that “developments in Syria have changed the situation fundamentally.”
Britain has been supportive of last week’s U.S. airstrike but has said it has no plans to join in any future attacks on Syrian government targets.
Meanwhile, Russia and Iran, Assad’s most influential supporters, rallied around him. Russia condemned the U.S. missile strike and suspended an agreement that would minimize the risk of in-flight incidents between Russian and U.S. military aircraft over Syria.
And on Saturday, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, in a statement carried by state television, called for the formation of an international fact-finding committee that “must not be headed by Americans.”
Also Saturday, dpa reported that at least 15 civilians were killed in strikes by U.S.-led coalition warplanes on a stronghold of the Islamic State in Syria, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The planes targeted a village on the outskirts of Raqqa, the de facto capital of Islamic State, the monitoring group said, according to dpa.
A rebel-held area in the Syrian city of Daraa was reportedly hit by an airstrike Saturday.