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, 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.
“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 his Chinese counterpart 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 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.
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.
Russia’s defence ministry subsequently notified the Pentagon it would close down at 2100 GMT the communications line used to avoid accidental clashes in Syria.
The Russian foreign ministry said it expected ‘explanations’ when US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visits next week. “Let him come and explain to us what they did today. We will tell him what we think about it,” ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said.
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.”
Syrian warplanes took off from the Shayrat air base soon after and carried out air strikes on rebel-held areas in the eastern Homs countryside, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
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. “This clearly indicates the president is willing to take decisive action when called for,” Secretary of State 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 Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, however, said the Trump administration was ready to take further steps if needed. “We are prepared to do more, but we hope that will not be necessary,” she told a meeting of the UN Security Council. “The United States will not stand by when chemical weapons are used.”
“We strongly condemn the illegitimate actions by the US. The consequences of this for regional and international stability could be extremely serious,” Russia’s deputy UN envoy Vladimir Safronkov told the same meeting.
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.
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 both issued statements saying Assad was solely to blame for the air strikes.
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.