U.S. launches military strike on Syria regime
Tomahawk missiles hit airfield suspected of housing chemical weapons
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.
TARGET: Syrian President Bashar Assad came under mounting global pressure after a chemical attack.
President Trump addressed the nation on Thursday night after the U.S. fired a barrage of cruise missiles into Syria.