President Donald Trump declared mission accomplished last night after airstrikes destroyed three Syrian chemical weapons sites in the most significant US-led military operation against the regime of Bashar Al Assad of the seven-year civil war.
More than 100 missiles were fired at the targets near Damascus and Homs early Saturday in a ‘limited and targeted’ operation aimed at sending a potent message to the Assad regime but stopping short of securing regime change, according to western military and political leaders.
“A perfectly executed strike last night,” said Mr Trump in a Tweet following the joint operation by US, British and French forces. “Could not have had a better result. Mission Accomplished!”
Syria and its allies condemned the attack and Russia called a meeting of the UN Security Council last night to discuss what it described as a blatant disregard for international law. Antonio Guterres, the UN secretary general, urged restraint to avoid escalation in the region.
The Pentagon described the attack as ‘precise, overwhelming and effective’ with two thirds of the missiles targeting and destroying the key research centre of the Syrian chemical weapons programme at Barzah near Damascus.
Syrian state TV broadcast images of the destruction at the site, including piles of rubble and a burnt vehicle. The Syrian military said it destroyed laboratories and an educational centre.
[ US starts air strikes in Syria in response to chemical weapons attack — live updates ]
[ Bashar Al Assad: Western strikes make Syria more determined ]
Two other chemical weapons facilities near Homs were targeted, the Pentagon said. US officials said that none of the 105 missiles had been intercepted by Syrian air defences.
The Pentagon said it was unaware of civilian casualties but said the attack had sparked a 2,000 per cent increase in Russian trolling activity.
The scale of the strikes was less than expected in some quarters with Mr Assad saying the attacks would only make Syria more determined to continue its operations. In a calculated show of defiance, the presidency posted a video showing Mr Assad apparently turning up for work following the attacks.
Hundreds of pro-Assad supporters gathered in a Damascus square immediately after the attack to celebrate what they claimed was the successful shooting down of US missiles. Russia’s defence ministry claimed that 71 of the missiles were shot down, a claim denied by the US authorities.
"We are not scared of America's missiles. We humiliated their missiles," said Mahmoud Ibrahim, waving a Syrian flag and hanging out of a car window.
Russia, Iran and China all condemned the attacks. There was a mixed reaction from the Arab world to the US-led operation first mooted by Mr Trump a week ago following a suspected chemical weapons attack that left 75 people dead in the rebel-held town of Douma last weekend.
Russia’s defence ministry claimed that the strikes were designed to disrupt an investigation by a team from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) which was due to start work on Saturday in Douma. The inspectors said they would go ahead with their investigation despite the strikes.
Theresa May, the UK prime minister, faced questions over the legality of the operation and was expected to face a political backlash on Monday she faced MPs after ordering British aircraft to attack without the backing of parliament.
But European allies lined up to support the ‘limited’ operation as it emerged that the US had warned Moscow about the airstrikes in advance to avoid Russian casualties and avoid a broader conflict between the major powers.
The Pentagon on Saturday that the strikes had set back the Syrian chemical weapons programme back years, even as Mr Trump kept the option open for further attacks on the regime until it stopped its use of prohibited agents.
The US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said Mr Trump had told her that "the United States is locked and loaded" to strike again if Mr Al Assad used chemical weapons again.
Relaying a message from Mr Trump at an emergency Security Council meeting on Syria, Ms Haley said: "When our president draws a red line, our president enforces the red line."
Mr Trump's position appeared at odds with Defence Secretary James Mattis who described the attack as a “one-time shot” amid reported differences between the two men in previous days over the extent of the response against Syria.
Mrs May said that the strikes delivered a broader message to Russia about the illegal use of chemical weapons following the poisoning of a former spy in the UK, an attack blamed on Russia. She called for a renewed diplomatic effort to strengthen the international laws against the use of such weapons.
Russian President Vladimir Putin condemned the attacks in the “most serious way". Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has called the airstrikes a "military crime”, according to Iran's state-run IRNA news agency.