PALM BEACH/MOSCOW/BEIRUT: The United States fired cruise missiles on Friday at a Syrian airbase from which President Donald Trump said a deadly chemical weapons attack had been launched, the first direct US assault on the government of Bashar al Assad in six years of civil war.
The missile strikes were one step away from clashing with the Russian military, Russia’s Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev charged on Friday, underscoring the risks in Trump’s first major foray into the Syrian civil war.
In the biggest foreign policy decision of his presidency so far, Trump ordered the step his predecessor Barack Obama never took: directly targeting the Syrian military for its suspected role in a poison gas attack that killed at least 70 people.
The Kremlin denounced the strikes as illegal. “Years of previous attempts at changing Assad’s behavior have all failed and failed very dramatically,” Trump said as he announced the attack from his Florida resort, Mar-a-Lago, where he was meeting Chinese President Xi Jinping.
“Even beautiful babies were cruelly murdered in this very barbaric attack,” he said of Tuesday’s chemical weapons strike, which Western countries blame on Assad’s forces. “No child of God should ever suffer such horror.”
US officials informed Russian forces ahead of the strikes, which were intended to punish the Syrian government for the alleged chemical attack, and avoided hitting Russian personnel. But satellite imagery suggests the Shayrat air base that was struck by dozens of US missiles is home to Russia’s special forces and military helicopters, part of the Kremlin’s effort to help the Syrian government fight Islamic State and other militant groups.
Medvedev, on social media, denounced the strikes as illegal and said they were “one step away from military clashes with Russia.” Meanwhile, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin met with the country’s security council on Friday and discussed keeping Russia’s air force presence in Syria following the strikes, the Kremlin said.
“The meeting expressed deep concern about the unavoidable negative consequences stemming from the aggressive action for the fight against global terrorism,” it said in a statement. It added that the council had discussed keeping a Russian airforce presence in Syria to support the anti-terrorist operations of the Syrian army.
Assad’s office said Damascus would respond by striking its enemies harder: “This aggression has increased Syria’s resolve to hit those terrorist agents, to continue to crush them, and to raise the pace of action to that end wherever they are.”
US officials said that the strike was a ‘one-off’ intended to deter future chemical weapons attacks, and not an expansion of the US role in the Syria war. The swift action is likely to be interpreted as a signal to Russia, as well as to countries such as North Korea, China and Iran, that he is willing to use force.
“This clearly indicates the president is willing to take decisive action when called for,” US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told reporters. “I would not in any way attempt to extrapolate that to a change in our policy or our posture relative to our military activities in Syria today. There has been no change in that status.”
US allies around the world expressed support, if somewhat cautiously, for the missile strikes. “The UK government fully supports the US action, which we believe was an appropriate response to the barbaric chemical weapons attack launched by the Syrian regime and is intended to deter further attacks,” a British government spokesman said.
Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told reporters: “Many innocent people became victims from the chemical attacks. Japan supports the US government’s determination to prevent the spread and use of chemical weapons.”
Turkey viewed the strikes positively as well. “The international community should sustain its stance against the barbarity of the Syrian government, Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus said.
France’s President Francois Hollande and Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke by telephone. Both issued statements saying Assad was solely to blame for the air strikes.
The strikes could cheer Assad’s enemies, after months when Western powers appeared to grow increasingly resigned to his staying in power.
“One airbase is not enough. There are 26 airbases that target civilians,” tweeted Mohammad Alloush, a senior rebel official. George Sabra, a prominent opposition politician said “Militarily, if it is limited to this strike, then it has no meaning.” The view was shared by Meheyedine Akkari, a Syrian refugee living in Lebanon, who said he expected the US strikes to have no effect on the war.
The Syrian government and Moscow have denied that Syrian forces were behind the gas attack, but Western countries have dismissed their explanation – that chemicals leaked from a rebel weapons depot after an air strike – as not credible.2017-04-07