The U.S. military fired a barrage of missiles into Syria Friday morning in retaliation for a gruesome chemical weapons attack blamed on President Bashar al-Assad’s forces that killed about 100 civilians. It is the first direct U.S. assault on Syrian government forces.
The 59 Tomahawk missiles were fired from the USS Porter and the USS Ross, a U.S. military official told VOA. Both destroyers are deployed in the eastern Mediterranean Sea.
A Navy official said the Shayrat Airfield in western Syrian was targeted because it was most likely used to launch Tuesday’s chemical strikes, which U.S. officials believe contained a nerve gas, possibly sarin.
‘Sarin nerve gas’
“We have a very high level of confidence it was carried out by aircraft of the Bashar al-Assad regime” and high degree of confidence it was “sarin nerve gas,” U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Thursday.
In a prime time address to the nation, U.S. President Donald Trump discussed the strikes.
“On Tuesday Syrian President Bashar al Assad launched a horrible chemical attack on innocent civilians using a deadly nerve agent. … Tonight I ordered a targeted military strike on the airfield in Syria from where the chemical attack was launched,” Trump said.
“It is in this vital national security interest of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons,” he added.
U.S. Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham released a statement shortly after the U.S. strike, saying, “We salute the skill and professionalism of the U.S. Armed Forces who carried out tonight’s strikes in Syria. Acting on the orders of their commander-in-chief, they 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.”
National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster spoke after the airstrikes Thursday.
“Obviously, the regime will retain a capacity to commit mass murder with chemical weapons beyond this airfield,” he said adding that this is the “first time the United States has taken direct military action” against the Assad regime.
“This was not a small strike,” he added.
Calls on civilized nations
Trump, speaking to reporters at his presidential retreat in southern Florida, called on all civilized nations to join the U.S. “in seeking an end to the slaughter and bloodshed in Syria.”
The airstrike came as Trump entertained Chinese President Xi Jinping at the president’s Mar-a-Lago retreat. Trump did not announce the attacks in advance, although he and other national security officials ratcheted up their warnings to the Syrian government throughout the day Thursday.
The surprise strike marked a sharp reversal for Trump, who, as a candidate, warned against the U.S. getting pulled into the Syrian civil war, now in its seventh year. But the president appeared moved by the video and photos of children killed in that chemical attack, calling it a “disgrace to humanity” that crossed “a lot of lines.”
Flying to his talks in Florida with the Chinese president, Trump told reporters that what happened in Syria was “a disgrace to humanity,” and that with Assad “running things … something should happen.”
“What Assad did is terrible. I think what happened in Syria is one of the truly egregious crimes, and it shouldn’t have happened and it shouldn’t be allowed to happen,” he said.
Trump added that he might “at some point” talk about Syria with its biggest military ally, Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Last week, the White House backed away from the former Obama administration’s stance that Assad must be removed.
Tillerson: Assad must go
While Trump did not say whether he now thought, in the wake of the gas attack, Assad should be driven from power, Secretary of State Tillerson said Thursday that Assad had to go. Tillerson told reporters there was “no role for him to govern the Syrian people” in the future.
“The process by which Assad would leave is something that requires an international community effort, both to first defeat ISIS [Islamic State extremists] 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.
U.S. officials said this week that there was no doubt the Syrian military was behind the apparent sarin gas attack on the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhoun, which also sickened 350.
Television pictures showed horrifying scenes — men, women and children foaming at the mouth, convulsing uncontrollably and struggling to breathe. Some families, including babies, died in their beds.
Doctors showed that the pupils of the victims’ eyes were tiny pinpoints that did not react to light — a clear sign of sarin gas poisoning.
U.S. officials rejected Russian and Syrian claims that the gas had come from a missile strike on a rebel-controlled warehouse where chemical weapons had been stockpiled.
At the United Nations, diplomats met earlier Thursday to discuss three draft resolutions responding to the gas attack. One put forward by the U.S., Britain and France, a competing draft put forward by Russia, and a third compromise draft from the 10 nonpermanent members of the council.
Discussions ran late into the evening Thursday, but no consensus was reached and council members departed, many looking tense.
Russia’s deputy U.N. Ambassador Vladimir Safronkov said “negative consequences” must be considered if the U.S. were to take unilateral military action.
“All responsibility, if military action occurred, will be on [the] shoulders of those who initiated such [a] doubtful and tragic enterprise,” Safronkov said in response to reporters’ questions.
“I was here with Hans Blix in 2003,” Sweden’s envoy Olof Skoog said, referring to the Swedish U.N. weapons inspector who told the Security Council that year that his team had found no evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. “We’re worried,” Skoog said, adding he had spoken to the U.S. ambassador about it.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem said his country did not use chemical weapons during airstrikes on Khan Sheikhoun. He insisted they would never be used, “even against terrorists.”
But Dr. Annie Sparrow, a public health specialist and a critical-care pediatrician at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York who has carried out many studies on Syria, said a “chemical cocktail” was used on the town.
She gave this chilling assessment to the VOA Turkish service: “It’s quite possible that Assad and Putin are using this … as a kind of experiment to test out new combinations of lethal chemical weapons.”
On Wednesday, Russia and Syria claimed that the nerve gas attack actually occurred after a rebel-controlled warehouse stockpiling chemical weapons was hit by a missile, a claim that U.S. officials rejected.
Sparrow said there was no way the Syrian rebels could have been responsible for the attack.
“Of course Russia and the Assad regime will deny this, because they know they are war crimes in the same way they deny attacks on hospitals and targeting civilians,” Sparrow said. “So they’re not going to fess up because they are war criminals conducting war crimes.”
The Kremlin said Putin, in a phone call with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, “underlined that it’s unacceptable to make unfounded accusations against anyone until a thorough and unbiased international investigation” has been conducted. But a Putin spokesman also said that Russia’s support for Assad was not unconditional.
Jordanian King Abdullah, meeting with Trump at the White House on Wednesday, said, “This is another testament to the failure of international diplomacy to find solutions to this crisis.”
Britain, France and the United States strongly condemned Russia on Wednesday during an emergency session of the U.N. Security Council.
The fate of a draft U.N. resolution condemning the attack written by the three Western powers remained in limbo, as Russia’s envoy said at the emergency session he did not think the time was right for such action.