US launches cruise missiles on Syrian airfield

It marked the first direct US assault on Bashar Al Assad’s regime and Mr Trump’s most dramatic military intervention since taking power in January.
An image provided by the US navy showing the USS Ross firing a Tomahawk land attack missile on April 7, 2017, from the Mediterranean Sea, striking the Shayrat airbase near Homs, Syria. Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Robert S Price/US navy via AP
An image provided by the US navy showing the USS Ross firing a Tomahawk land attack missile on April 7, 2017, from the Mediterranean Sea, striking the Shayrat airbase near Homs, Syria. Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Robert S Price/US navy via AP

NEW YORK // United States warships launched more than 50 cruise missiles at an airfield in Syria which Donald Trump said was the base from which a chemical attack was carried out earlier this week.

Mr Trump said the strikes on Shayrat airbase near Homs, which took place at 4.40am UAE time on Friday, were designed to prevent and deter any further use of chemical weapons. He also called on all “civilised nations” to help end the bloodshed.

It marked the first direct US assault on Bashar Al Assad’s regime and Mr Trump’s most dramatic military intervention since taking power in January.

A Kremlin spokesman said Russian president Vladimir Putin considered the strike on “aggression against a sovereign state” that was done under “an invented pretext”.

Images of the attack on Khan Sheikhoun, showing dead and dying children, provoked outrage around the world and brought fresh calls for concerted action against Mr Al Assad.

Mr Trump said there was no doubt that the Syrian government was behind the chemical attack.

“Assad choked out the lives of innocent men, women and children,” said Mr Trump at his Florida resort of Mar-a-Lago. “It was a slow and brutal death for so many.”

Syria’s regime denounced the strike as a “flagrant aggression” and state news agency Sana said nine civilians including four children had been killed in villages near the base.

Activists say the air base, hangars, fuel depot and aircraft were badly damaged.

“The airbase was almost completely destroyed — the runway, the fuel tanks and the air defences were all blown to pieces,” the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

Syria’s state TV showed footage of the missile strike on the air base, showing a fast sequence of orange flashes that lit the dark sky in the distance before the crack of dawn.

In a different sequence after day break, the Syrian TV station Al Ikhbariyah showed smoke billowing in the distance, hovering over a raging fire.

Homs governor Talal Barazi said there were several dead and wounded at the base and that large parts of it were on fire.

US officials said the action was limited, proportionate and should not be interpreted as the start of a military campaign to remove Mr Al Assad.

They said 59 Tomahawk missiles were launched from two US navy warships, the USS Porter and USS Ross, in the eastern Mediterranean Sea, striking the airstrip, aircraft and fuel stations.

Captain Jeff Davis, Pentagon spokesman, said Russian forces were notified in advance using a “deconfliction line”, a communications channel set up to avoid a confrontation between the two countries.

“The strike was a proportional response to Assad’s heinous act,” he said. “Shayrat Airfield was used to store chemical weapons and Syrian air forces.”

Syrian rebels on Friday welcomed the US strike but urged additional action, with one powerful faction, the Army of Islam, saying a single strike was “not enough”, while the Southern Front rebel faction hailed the attack as “the first step on the correct path to combating terrorism and we hope it will continue”.

Iran, which along with Russia provides military backing to the Assad government, denounced the attack.

“Iran ... condemns use of chemical weapons ... but at the same time believes it is dangerous, destructive and violation of international laws to use it as an excuse to take unilateral actions,” a foreign ministry spokesman said.

But Saudi Arabia said it “fully backs” the action, with the foreign ministry saying the Syrian regime had only itself to blame after “odious crimes it had committed for years against the Syrian people”.

Turkey welcomed the strike calling for a no-fly zone in the country to prevent further bloodshed, while Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he supports the “strong and clear message” sent by a US strike. The Israeli military said it had been informed in advance.

The bold action represents a rapid reversal of US policy.

Throughout the election campaign Mr Trump had warned against further involvement in the Syrian civil war.

Instead his administration remained focused on tackling the threat from ISIL while his most senior diplomats had said that removing Mr Al Assad was not a priority for America but a matter for the Syrian people.

The chemical attack on Tuesday changed that.

Officials told journalists at Mar-a-Lago — where Mr Trump was entertaining the Chinese premier Xi Jinping — that the president had been deeply affected by images of Syrian children killed by what was believed to be sarin nerve agent.

The attack in the rebel-held northern Syrian town of Khan Sheikhoun killed at least 80 people.

On Tuesday, Mr Trump said the images had led him to reconsider his stance on Mr Al Assad.

By Thursday, Rex Tillerson, his secretary of state, had shifted from saying Mr Al Assad’s future was up to people of Syria to openly calling for regime change.

“Assad’s role in the future is uncertain, clearly. And with the acts that he has taken, it would seem that there would be no role for him to govern the Syrian people,” he said, adding that a coalition was already working to remove him from power.

His words were later clarified by a State Department spokesman who said he was talking about diplomatic efforts to find a political solution.

The US missile strikes hit Syrian soil at about 3.45am Syrian time (4.45pm UAE time).

In the US, the strikes were applauded by hawkish Republicans who had long criticised Barack Obama for failing to take action despite saying that the use of chemical weapons would cross a “red line”.

Lindsey Graham and John McCain, two senators who have called repeatedly for intervention, said it should be a first step to taking Mr Al Assad’s air force out of the war.

“We salute the skill and professionalism of the US Armed Forces who carried out tonight’s strikes in Syria,” they said in a joint statement. “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.”

foreign.desk@thenational.ae

*With reporting from Reuters, Agence France-Presse and Associated Press

Published: April 7, 2017 04:00 AM

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