U.S. launches mil­i­tary strike on Syria regime

Tom­a­hawk mis­siles hit air­field sus­pected of hous­ing chem­i­cal weapons

The Washington Times Daily - - FRONT PAGE - BY CARLO MUNOZ AND STEPHEN DINAN

Amer­i­can war­ships sta­tioned off the Syr­ian coast­line fired a salvo of cruise mis­siles against a Syr­ian mil­i­tary base in the west­ern part of the coun­try early Fri­day, days af­ter a chem­i­cal strike blamed on the regime of Bashar As­sad left nearly 100 civil­ians wounded or dead.

Roughly 50 Tom­a­hawk cruise mis­siles were fired from two Amer­i­can de­stroy­ers in the east­ern Mediter­ranean Sea, U.S. of­fi­cials said. The strikes were cen­tered on the al-Shayrat air­field near the city of Homs in the Alaw­ite-dom­i­nated west­ern region of the coun­try.

The air­field was one of the lo­ca­tions sus­pected of hous­ing por­tions of the chem­i­cal weapons stock­piles used dur­ing Tuesday’s at­tack near Idlib prov­ince, a known strong­hold for rebel forces bat­tling to over­throw Mr. As­sad.

In his first such ad­dress to the na­tion, Pres­i­dent Trump called for “all civ­i­lized na­tions” to rally in op­po­si­tion to the Syr­ian regime and global ter­ror­ism and said chem­i­cal weapons use must be coun­tered at ev­ery turn.

“No child of God should ever suf­fer such hor­ror,” the pres­i­dent said from Florida, where he had just con­cluded a meet­ing with China’s pres­i­dent. “Tonight I or­dered a tar­geted mil­i­tary strike on the air­field in Syria from where the chem­i­cal at­tack was launched.”

The pres­i­dent spoke for about three min­utes and ig­nored a shouted ques­tion at the end about the le­gal jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for the strike.

Syr­ian state TV called the at­tack an “ag­gres­sion” that had caused dam­age in sup­port of Is­lamic State ter­ror­ists.

Talal Barazi, the gov­er­nor of Homs prov­ince, told Syr­ian TV that the at­tack sup­ported “the ter­ror­ists on the ground.”

It was not im­me­di­ately clear how Rus­sia, which has for decades backed the As­sad regime and has spent this week deny­ing any regime cul­pa­bil­ity in Tuesday’s chem­i­cal at­tack, will re­spond to the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s ac­tions.

But there were signs Thurs­day that Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin may be open­ing to a change in pos­ture to­ward Da­m­as­cus, as a Putin spokesman told The As­so­ci­ated Press that Moscow’s sup­port for Mr. As­sad is not un­con­di­tional.

Amer­i­can com­man­ders warned their Rus­sian coun­ter­parts of the im­pend­ing strike, which is just over 100 miles south of Latakia, Moscow’s main mil­i­tary hub in the coun­try, NBC News re­ported.

U.S. and Rus­sian com­man­ders have kept close com­mu­ni­ca­tions since Moscow be­gan its Syr­ian op­er­a­tions in sup­port of the As­sad regime in earnest. Moscow and Washington say the com­mu­ni­ca­tions were strictly de­signed to en­sure each na­tion’s air as­sets do not in­ter­fere with the other’s op­er­a­tions.

Ini­tial dam­age as­sess­ments show Syr­ian air­craft and sup­port fa­cil­i­ties at the air­field had been de­stroyed, “re­duc­ing the Syr­ian gov­ern­ment’s abil­ity to de­liver chem­i­cal weapons,” Pen­tagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis said.

“As al­ways, the U.S. took ex­tra­or­di­nary mea­sures to avoid civil­ian ca­su­al­ties,” he said. “Ev­ery pre­cau­tion was taken to ex­e­cute this strike with min­i­mal risk to per­son­nel at the air­field.”

Pres­sure had been mount­ing on the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion to take re­tal­ia­tory ac­tion against the As­sad regime since the chem­i­cal at­tack. Syr­ian forces were re­quired to dis­man­tle all chem­i­cal weapons stock­piles as part of a Rus­sian­bro­kered peace deal be­tween Washington and Da­m­as­cus in 2014.

The sit­u­a­tion reached a tip­ping point Thurs­day as Mr. Trump and Sec­re­tary of State Rex W. Tiller­son sug­gested the White House was weigh­ing mil­i­tary ac­tion against Mr. As­sad. The U.S. strikes in Homs is the first ma­jor mil­i­tary ac­tion taken by the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion.

“There is no doubt in our minds and the in­for­ma­tion we have sup­ports that,” Mr. Tiller­son said hours be­fore Mr. Trump was briefed on the op­er­a­tion Thurs­day night by De­fense Sec­re­tary James N. Mat­tis.

While Mr. Trump made head­lines ear­lier Thurs­day by say­ing “some­thing should hap­pen” to pun­ish the Syr­ian pres­i­dent, Mr. Tiller­son went fur­ther — sug­gest­ing the ad­min­is­tra­tion has re­versed its po­si­tion on whether Mr. As­sad can re­main in power, and is now call­ing on Rus­sia to back away from him.

“It is very im­por­tant that the Rus­sian gov­ern­ment con­sider care­fully their continued sup­port for the As­sad regime,” Mr. Tiller­son told re­porters gath­ered at the pres­i­dent’s Mar-a-Lago re­sort in Florida, where he and Mr. Trump be­gan a two­day sum­mit with Chi­nese Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping on Thurs­day.

U.S. of­fi­cials re­vealed that Mr. Tiller­son, who is slated to visit Moscow next week, had spo­ken by phone Wed­nes­day with Rus­sian For­eign Min­is­ter Sergey Lavrov about the ram­i­fi­ca­tions of the Syr­ian chem­i­cal at­tack.

Mr. Trump was mov­ing swiftly to en­force the “red line” drawn by Pres­i­dent Obama, who warned the Syr­ian regime against chem­i­cal weapons at­tacks but who strug­gled to find ways to back up that threat.

“It was a low and bru­tal death for so many. Even beau­ti­ful ba­bies were cru­elly mur­dered in this very bar­baric at­tack,” the pres­i­dent, clearly moved by the re­ports and pho­tos of the chem­i­cal at­tack on Syr­ian civil­ians this week, said Thurs­day night.

The re­sponse on Capi­tol Hill was swift and sup­port­ive.

Repub­li­can Sens. John McCain of Ari­zona and Lind­sey Gra­ham of South Carolina, long­time pro­po­nents of U.S. in­ter­ven­tion in Syria, lauded the White House’s de­ci­sion to act. The strikes “have sent an im­por­tant mes­sage the United States will no longer stand idly by as As­sad, aided and abet­ted by Putin’s Rus­sia, slaugh­ters in­no­cent Syr­i­ans with chem­i­cal weapons and bar­rel bombs,” they said in a joint state­ment.

Sen. Marco Ru­bio, Florida Repub­li­can and for­mer pres­i­den­tial hope­ful, also com­mended the ad­min­is­tra­tion for tak­ing ac­tion in Syria, not­ing in a state­ment that “Pres­i­dent Trump has made it clear to As­sad and those who em­power him that the days of com­mit­ting war crimes with im­punity are over.”

But oth­ers in Congress ar­gued that the strikes were launched with­out proper con­gres­sional au­thor­ity — a claim Hill Repub­li­cans levied of­ten against the Obama White House for its mil­i­tary ac­tions in Libya in 2011.

“The Pres­i­dent needs Con­gres­sional au­tho­riza­tion for mil­i­tary ac­tion as re­quired by the Con­sti­tu­tion. Our prior in­ter­ven­tions in this region have done noth­ing to make us safer and Syria will be no dif­fer­ent,” Sen. Rand Paul, Ken­tucky Repub­li­can, said via Twit­ter late Thurs­day night.

Sen. Richard J. Durbin, Illi­nois Repub­li­can, con­ceded the White House’s “mea­sured re­sponse” Thurs­day, but the No. 2 Demo­crat in the up­per cham­ber warned the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion that any fur­ther mil­i­tary ac­tion against Syria will de­mand “close scru­tiny from Congress … [and] re­quire en­gag­ing the Amer­i­can peo­ple in that de­ci­sion.” Rep. Ted Lieu, Cal­i­for­nia Demo­crat, was more suc­cinct in his crit­i­cism of the Syr­ian strikes, call­ing them un­con­sti­tu­tional.

Rus­sian of­fi­cials have claimed the es­ti­mated 80 peo­ple who died in Tuesday’s at­tack were killed by gas leak­ing from a chem­i­cal weapons de­pot held by anti-As­sad op­po­si­tion rebels af­ter it was hit by Syr­ian gov­ern­ment airstrikes.

The Syr­ian gov­ern­ment has staunchly de­nied they used any chem­i­cal weapons and has blamed the rebels for stock­pil­ing the deadly chem­i­cals, but Amer­i­can of­fi­cials say it was ac­tu­ally a Syr­ian fixed-wing air­craft that dropped the chem­i­cal-packed bombs on civil­ians.

Two U.S. mil­i­tary of­fi­cials told NBC News on con­di­tion of anonymity Thurs­day that Amer­i­can forces saw Syr­ian air­craft on radar and watched the bombs be­ing dropped.

The bombs hit a hos­pi­tal in an area where the Nusra Front — an al Qaedaaligned Is­lamic ex­trem­ist rebel group in Syria — holds ter­ri­tory, the of­fi­cials said.

Im­ages have since swirled across the world’s me­dia show­ing civil­ians writhing on the ground, cough­ing and gasp­ing for air in a man­ner con­sis­tent with ex­po­sure to nerve gas.

The in­ci­dent was the third time that As­sad regime forces are be­lieved to have used such weapons since a 2014 Rus­siabro­kered pact to dis­man­tle Mr. As­sad’s chem­i­cal stock­piles.

That pact was reached shortly af­ter then-Pres­i­dent Obama had is­sued his much-de­rided “red line” threat­en­ing U.S. mil­i­tary ac­tion if the As­sad regime used chem­i­cal weapons, a threat that was never car­ried out af­ter the Rus­sian ini­tia­tive emerged.

Mr. Trump said Wed­nes­day that Mr. Obama’s dec­la­ra­tion and sub­se­quent un­will­ing­ness to take uni­lat­eral mil­i­tary ac­tion against the regime had greatly weak­ened Washington’s lever­age over the di­rec­tion of the chaotic, mul­ti­front civil war that has killed some 400,000 peo­ple over the past six years.

But any U.S. mil­i­tary re­sponse to the lat­est in­ci­dent is expected to be com­pli­cated by the fierce mix of al­liances and prox­ies at work in the war — as well as by Mr. Trump’s past com­ments that his main pri­or­ity in Syria is to de­feat the Is­lamic State, whose de facto cap­i­tal is in the Syr­ian city of Raqqa.

Dur­ing his cam­paign for pres­i­dent last year, and since his in­au­gu­ra­tion in Jan­uary, Mr. Trump has sig­naled a de­sire to work with Rus­sia to­ward rout­ing Is­lamic State from Syria.

But any move­ment to­ward co­op­er­a­tion has been stalled by Rus­sia’s back­ing for the As­sad regime, as well as Moscow’s tacit alliance with Iran, which is also sup­port­ing forces loyal to the regime.

Mr. Tiller­son and other top ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials had re­cently floated the idea that Washington would al­low Mr. As­sad to stay in power as part of a fu­ture po­lit­i­cal set­tle­ment of the civil war.

The ad­min­is­tra­tion’s ap­par­ent re­ver­sal on the mat­ter be­gan Wed­nes­day, when Mr. Trump said his at­ti­tude to­ward the regime had “changed very much” as videos of the chem­i­cal at­tack and tes­ti­mony of sur­vivors poured in.

Mr. Tiller­son sug­gested Thurs­day that the ad­min­is­tra­tion still wants a po­lit­i­cal tran­si­tion in Syria — but that the goal now is that it ends with Mr. As­sad’s re­moval from power.

“The process by which As­sad would leave is some­thing that I think re­quires an in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity ef­fort, both to first de­feat ISIS within Syria to sta­bi­lize the Syr­ian coun­try to avoid fur­ther civil war, and then to work col­lec­tively with our part­ners around the world through a po­lit­i­cal process that would lead to As­sad leav­ing,” he said, us­ing an acro­nym for the Is­lamic State group.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

TARGET: Syr­ian Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad came un­der mount­ing global pres­sure af­ter a chem­i­cal at­tack.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Pres­i­dent Trump ad­dressed the na­tion on Thurs­day night af­ter the U.S. fired a bar­rage of cruise mis­siles into Syria.

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