| WASHINGTON/PALM BEACH, Fla., April 7
WASHINGTON/PALM BEACH, Fla., April 7 The United
States fired dozens of cruise missiles at a Syrian airbase on
Friday from which it said a deadly chemical weapons attack was
launched this week, an escalation of the U.S. military role in
Syria that swiftly drew sharp criticism from Russia.
Two U.S. warships fired 59 cruise missiles from the eastern
Mediterranean Sea at the Syrian airbase controlled by forces of
President Bashar al-Assad in response to a poison gas attack in
a rebel-held area on Tuesday, U.S. officials said.
Facing his biggest foreign policy crisis since his Jan. 20
inauguration, President Donald Trump took the toughest direct
U.S. action yet in Syria's six-year-old civil war, raising the
risk of confrontation with Russia and Iran, Assad's two main
Russian President Vladimir Putin believes that the missile
strikes on a Syrian air base broke international law and have
seriously hurt U.S.-Russia relations, news agencies cited the
Kremlin as saying.
The Russian leader regarded the U.S. action as "aggression
against a sovereign nation" on a "made-up pretext" and as a
cynical attempt to distract the world from civilian deaths in
Iraq, Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov was cited as saying.
U.S. officials said they informed Russian forces ahead of
the missile attacks and that they took pains to avoid hitting
Russian troops at the base, saying there were no strikes on
sections of the base where Russians were present. But they said
the administration did not seek Moscow's approval.
"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 Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Trump ordered the strikes a day after he blamed Assad for
this week's chemical attack, which killed at least 70 people,
many of them children, in the Syrian town of Khan Sheikhoun. The
Syrian government has denied it was behind the attack.
The Tomahawk missiles were launched from the USS Porter and
USS Ross around 8:40 p.m. EDT (0040 GMT on Friday), striking
multiple targets - including the airstrip, aircraft and fuel
stations - on the Shayrat Air Base, which the Pentagon says was
used to store chemical weapons.
"Initial indications are that this strike has severely
damaged or destroyed Syrian aircraft and support infrastructure
and equipment at Shayrat Airfield, reducing the Syrian
government's ability to deliver chemical weapons," said Pentagon
spokesman Captain Jeff Davis.
At least four Syrian soldiers, including a senior officer,
were killed in the attack, which almost completely destroyed the
base, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
The U.S. cruise missile attack was a "one-off," a U.S.
defense official told Reuters, meaning it was expected to be a
single strike with no current plans for escalation.
The attacks spurred a flight to safety in global financial
markets, sending yields on safe-haven U.S. Treasury securities
to their lowest since November. Stocks weakened in Asia and U.S.
equity index futures slid, indicating Wall Street would open
lower on Friday. Prices for oil and gold both rose, and the
dollar slipped against the Japanese yen.
Syrian state TV said that "American aggression" had targeted
a Syrian military base with "a number of missiles and cited a
Syrian military source as saying the strike had "led to losses."
Trump sought to cast the attack, which took place as he and
Xi were wrapping up a dinner of Dover sole and dry-aged New York
strip steak, as an effort to deter Syria from using chemical
weapons in the future.
"Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad launched a horrible
chemical weapons attack on innocent civilians," he said later.
"Tonight I ordered a targeted military strike on the airfield in
Syria from where the chemical attack was launched."
"It is in this vital national security interest of the
United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly
chemical weapons," Trump added.
Trump aides described his action as a measured and targeted
response and suggested the wider U.S. strategy, which has been
to avoid getting dragged into the civil war, would not change.
"We feel the strike itself was proportionate," U.S.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told reporters.
"This clearly indicates the president is willing to take
decisive action when called for," he added. "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."
According to a U.S. defense official, Trump first asked
about possible military action on Wednesday, after U.S.
intelligence agencies confirmed that Syrian aircraft based at
the al Shayrat airbase had dropped Sarin gas on civilians.
Planning began on Wednesday and accelerated at the Pentagon,
the State Department and the White House on Thursday, helped by
the fact that the Defense Department had numerous off-the-shelf
plans, including for cruise missile strikes on Syrian airfields.
"It was a matter of dusting those off and adapting them for
the current target set and timing," the official told Reuters,
speaking on condition of anonymity.
AT ODDS WITH RUSSIA
The relatively quick response to the chemical attack came as
Trump faced a growing list of global problems, from North Korea
and China to Iran and Islamic State, and may have been intended
to send a message to friends and foes alike of his resolve to
use military force if deemed necessary.
"One question is whether Russia will respond in any
meaningful way," said a senior U.S. official involved in
planning the raid. "If they do, they will be further complicit
in the actions of the Syrian regime."
Russia has air and ground forces in Syria after intervening
there on Assad's side in 2015 and turning the tide against
mostly Sunni Muslim rebel groups.
Trump has so far focused his Syria policy almost exclusively
on defeating Islamic State militants in northern Syria, where
U.S. special forces support Arab and Kurdish armed groups.
Iran, which also backs Assad, 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," Students News Agency ISNA quoted Foreign Ministry
spokesman Bahram Qasemi as saying.
Israel welcomed the move.
"In both word and action, President Trump sent a strong and
clear message today that the use and spread of chemical weapons
will not be tolerated," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's
office said in a statement.
U.S. lawmakers had a mixed reaction, with some criticizing
Trump's decision to use force without getting their approval.
"Congress will work with the president, but his failure to
seek congressional approval is unlawful,” said Senator Tim
Kaine, the 2016 Democratic vice presidential candidate.
The U.N. Security Council was expected to hold closed-door
consultations on Friday about the U.S. strike on Syria following
a request by Bolivia, an elected member of the council, a senior
Security Council diplomat said.
(Additional reporting by Phil Stewart, Idrees Ali, Yara
Bayoumy, Jonathan Landay, John Walcott, Lesley Wroughton,
Patricia Zengerle, Roberta Rampton, David Brunnstrom and Matt
Spetalnick in Washington and Megan Davies in New York; Writing
by Matt Spetalnick, Jeff Mason and Arshad Mohammed; Editing by
Yara Bayoumy, Peter Cooney and Raju Gopalakrishnan)