WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S., British and French forces pounded Syria with air strikes early on Saturday in response to a poison gas attack that killed dozens of people last week, in the biggest intervention by Western powers against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
U.S. President Donald Trump announced the military action from the White House late on Friday. As he spoke, explosions rocked Damascus. Trump said he was prepared to sustain the response until Assad’s government stopped its use of chemical weapons.
British Prime Minister Theresa May and French President Emmanuel Macron said the UK and France had joined in the attack.
Syria’s seven-year-old civil war has pitted the United States and its allies against Russia, which itself intervened in the war in 2015 to back Assad.
Syrian state media said the attack would fail and called it a “flagrant violation of international law.” Russia’s ambassador to the United States said Moscow had warned that “such actions will not be left without consequences”.
In a televised address from the White House, Trump said he had ordered U.S. armed forces to launch “precision strikes” associated with Assad’s chemical weapons capabilities.
“The combined American, British, and French response to these atrocities will integrate all instruments of our national power — military, economic, and diplomatic. We are prepared to sustain this response until the Syrian regime stops its use of prohibited chemical agents,” Trump said.
Speaking of Assad and his suspected role in last week’s chemical weapons attack, Trump said, “These are not the actions of a man. They are crimes of a monster instead.”
At least six loud explosions were heard in Damascus in the early hours of Saturday and smoke was seen rising over the Syrian capital, a Reuters witness said. A second witness said the Barzah district of Damascus had been hit in the strikes. Barzah is the location of a major Syrian scientific research center.
At a Pentagon briefing, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford said the targets included a Syrian research facility and a chemical weapons storage facility.
The combined U.S., British and French assault appeared to be more intense than the strike Trump ordered almost exactly a year ago against a Syrian airbase in retaliation for an earlier chemical weapons attack that Washington attributed to Assad.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said twice as many weapons were used in the strikes on Saturday compared to last April’s strike.
Mattis, who U.S. officials said had earlier warned in internal debates against too large an attack that would risk confrontation with Russia, described the strikes as a “one time shot” to dissuade Assad from “doing this again.”
Asked what chemicals were used in the weekend attack, Mattis confirmed that chlorine gas had been used and did not rule out the nerve agent sarin.
Dunford said that manned U.S. aircraft were used in the military operation and that the strike was planned to minimize the risk of casualties among Russia’s military forces in Syria. A U.S. official told Reuters that Tomahawk cruise missiles also were involved.
Syrian air defenses shot down 13 missiles fired in the U.S.-led attack on the country on Saturday, Syrian state TV said. The missiles had been shot down in the Kiswah area south of the capital Damascus, it said.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said a total of three scientific research centers had been hit in the attacks, two in Damascus and one in the Homs area, in addition to military bases in Damascus.
In his televised address, Trump said, “The purpose of our actions tonight is to establish a strong deterrent against the production, spread and use of chemical weapons.”
The U.S. president, who has tried to build good relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin, had sharply critical words for Russia and Iran, which have backed Assad’s government.
“To Iran and to Russia, I ask, what kind of a nation wants to be associated with the mass murder of innocent men, women and children?” Trump said.
UK Prime Minister Theresa May said she had authorized British armed forces “to conduct coordinated and targeted strikes to degrade the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons capability.” She described it as a “limited and targeted strike” aimed at minimizing civilian casualties.
Trump made clear in his eight-minute televised address that he was wary of a deeper entanglement in Syria, where about 2,000 U.S. troops have been deployed to fight Islamic State.
Last year, the United States fired 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles from the guided missile destroyers USS Porter and the USS Ross that struck the Shayrat air base. The targets of that strike included Syrian aircraft, aircraft shelters, petroleum and logistical storage facilities, ammunition supply bunkers, air defense systems and radar. At the time, the Pentagon claimed that a fifth of Syria’s operational aircraft were either damaged or destroyed.
A U.S.-led attack on Syria will be seen as limited if it is now over and there is no second round of strikes, said a senior official in the regional alliance that has supported President Bashar al-Assad in the Syrian war.
“If it is finished, and there is no second round, it will be considered limited,” the official told Reuters.
The air strikes, however, risk dragging the United States further into Syria’s civil war, particularly if Russia, Iran and Assad opt to retaliate.
Reporting by Steve Holland, Phil Stewart; Additional reporting by Tim Ahmann, Eric Beech, Lesley Wroughton, Lucia Mutikani, Idrees Ali and Patricia Zengerle in Washington, Samia Nakhoul, Tom Perry, Laila Bassam in Beirut, Michael Holden and Guy Faulconbridge in London, and Jean-Baptiste Vey, Geert de Clerq and Matthias Blamont in Paris; Writing by Yara Bayoumy and Warren Strobel; Editing by Clive McKeef