US President Donald Trump said on Thursday (6 April) that he ordered missile strikes against a Syrian airfield from which a deadly chemical weapons attack was launched, declaring he acted in America’s “national security interest” against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
US officials said the military fired dozens of cruise missiles against an airbase controlled by Assad’s forces in response to the poison gas attack on Tuesday (4 April) in a rebel-held area.
Facing his biggest foreign policy crisis since taking office in January, Trump took the toughest direct US action yet in Syria’s six-year-old civil war, raising the risk of confrontation with Russia and Iran, Assad’s two main military backers.
“Years of previous attempts at changing Assad’s behaviour have all failed and failed very dramatically,” Trump said from his resort in Mar-a-Lago where he was attending a summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Some 50 Tomahawk missiles were launched from US Navy warships, the USS Porter and USS Ross, in the eastern Mediterranean, striking multiple targets – including the airstrip, aircraft and fuel stations – on the Shayrat Air Base, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
— ABC News (@ABC) April 7, 2017
The US military gave Russian forces advanced notice of its strikes on a Syrian airbase and did not hit sections of the base where the Russians were believed to be present, Pentagon spokesman Captain Jeff Davis said.
— The Hill (@thehill) April 7, 2017
Davis, briefing reporters on the operation, said the US military had “multiple” conversations with Russian forces on Thursday before the strike, using a line of communication that had previously been established to prevent an accidental clash in Syria during the fight against Islamic State.
Damage estimates from the strikes, which were conducted at 8:45 PM EDT (0045 GMT on Friday), were not immediately known.
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 said: “Tonight I ordered a targeted military strike on the airfield in Syria from where the chemical attack was launched.
“It is in the vital national security interest of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons,” the president said.
“There can be no dispute that Syria used banned chemical weapons, violated its obligations under the chemical weapons convention and ignored the urging of the UN Security Council,” he added.
Trump ordered the strikes just a day after he pointed the finger at Assad for this week’s chemical attack, which killed at least 80 people, many of them children, in the Syrian town of Khan Sheikhoun. The Syrian government has denied it was behind the attack.
Trump appeared to have opted for measured and targeted air attacks instead of a full-blown assault on Assad’s forces and installations.
The relatively quick response to the chemical attack came as Trump faced a growing list of global problems, from North Korea to 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.
‘Something should happen’
Trump said earlier on Thursday that “something should happen” with Assad but did not specifically call for his ouster.
Officials from the Pentagon and State Department met all day to discuss plans for the missile strikes.
US military action put the new president at odds with Russia, which 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 until now focused his Syria policy almost exclusively on defeating Islamic State militants in northern Syria, where US special forces are supporting Arab and Kurdish armed groups.
The risks have grown worse since 2013, when Barack Obama, Trump’s predecessor, considered and then rejected ordering a cruise missile strike in response to the use of chemical weapons by Assad’s loyalists.
— CNN Politics (@CNNPolitics) April 7, 2017
Only last week, US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said the US diplomatic policy on Syria, for now, was no longer focused on making Assad leave power, one of Obama’s aims.
But Trump said on Wednesday (5 April) the gas attack in Idlib province, which sparked outrage around the world, had caused him to think again about Assad.
Speaking just before the strikes were announced, Russia’s deputy UN envoy, Vladimir Safronkov, warned of “negative consequences” if the United States went ahead with military action, saying the blame would be “on shoulders of those who initiated such doubtful and tragic enterprise.”
The deployment of military force against Assad marked a major reversal for Trump.
Obama’s set a “red line” in 2012 against Assad’s use of chemical weapons. When Obama then threatened military action after a 2013 chemical attack, Trump issued a series of tweets opposing the idea, including “Do NOT attack Syria, fix USA.”
19 times Trump tweeted that the U.S. shouldn't bomb Syria https://t.co/S325ng3FkS
— TIME (@TIME) April 7, 2017
Obama backtracked on the air strikes, and after the latest attack, Trump was quick to blame his Democratic predecessor for “weakness and irresolution” that emboldened Assad.
Turkey slams Russia
Turkey yesterday slammed Russia over its backing of Assad in the Syria, as the first major cracks emerged between Moscow and Ankara after a dramatic reconciliation last year.
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said that Turkey was “saddened” that Russia’s leader Vladimir Putin had not fixed blame on the Assad regime for the deadly attack and issued a veiled threat that Ankara could reassess its alliances.
“I spoke to Mr Putin, but Mr Putin is still asking ‘is Assad behind this or not?’,” Erdoğan told Kanal 7 in an interview.
“Now it’s two, three days and it has saddened us that this has not been understood,” he added.
The Turkish health ministry has pointed to the use of the deadly nerve agent sarin.
In a warning to the Kremlin, Erdoğan said: “We need to overcome this quickly. We have to take our decisions and find out who is our friend, who is our enemy.”
“And we will take our steps according to this,” he added.
Turkey and Russia have been on sharply opposing sides in the six-year-long Syria conflict, with Moscow supporting Assad but Ankara pushing for his ouster.
Relations reached a dangerous low in November 2015 when Turkish warplanes shot down a Russian fighter jet over the Syrian border.
But a normalisation deal was reached last year and the two sides have been working ever more closely.
They secured a deal to evacuate Syrians from Aleppo after the city was retaken by Assad’s forces backed by his Russian allies, and supported a process in the Kazakh capital Astana to search for peace.
But Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said incidents such as the attack in Idlib put in danger the entire peace process.
“If these attacks continue, then Astana will have lost all its sense. Can you have talks when chemical weapons” are being used? he asked in an interview with NTV television.
In a clear sharpening of Ankara’s rhetoric, Çavuşoğlu added: “That Russia is protecting this regime is utterly wrong.”
The honeymoon in relations between Ankara and Moscow has also been endangered by Russian cooperation in Syria with the Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG), Kurdish militia that Turkey considers to be a terror group. The US also arms and trains the PKK-affiliated fighters.
Yet analysts have also noted that the alliance with Russia is crucial to Erdoğan’s current strategy.
Moscow could be a key ally as Turkey’s relations with the European Union strain, while the Turkish economy also depends on Russian gas imports and a steady influx of Russian tourists.