The US launched dozens of cruise missiles at an airfield controlled by the Syrian government, as the new administration changed its position on President Bashar al-Assad remaining in power following a deadly chemical weapons attack on a rebel-held area.
“Tonight I ordered a targeted military strike on the airfield in Syria from where the chemical attack was launched,” Donald Trump said at a press conference from his Florida resort in Mar-a-Lago, where is holding a summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Fifty-nine Tomahawk missiles were launched from the USS Porter and USS Ross in the eastern Mediterranean Sea, striking multiple targets including the airstrip, aircraft and fuel stations at the Shayrat Air Base.
“These missiles targeted aircraft, hardened aircraft shelters, petroleum and logistical storage areas, ammunition supply bunkers, air defense systems, and radars,” Pentagon spokesman Jeff Davis told reporters.
Four soldiers were killed on Friday and the attack virtually destroyed its facilities, a monitoring group told AFP.
“An air commodore was among the four soldiers killed,” the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
“The airbase was almost completely destroyed – the runway, the fuel tanks and the air defences were all blown to pieces,” the Britain-based monitoring group said.
“There were Sukhoi-22, Sukhoi-24 and MiG-23” fighter aircraft on the ground, Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP.
The officers’ quarters at Shayrat, the government’s second most important airbase, were also damaged, he added.
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 ordered the strikes just a day after he pointed the finger at Assad for the chemical attack on the Syrian town of Khan Sheikhoun that killed at least 70 people, many of them children, calling it “a disgrace to humanity.”
“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,” Trump said. “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 Syrian government has denied responsibility.
The relatively quick US response to the chemical assault came as Trump faces 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.
Trump personally informed Xi of the attack, AFP reported.
“We oppose anyone to use chemical weapons at any time in any situation,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Hua Chunying said on April 5, adding that China wanted to see “an objective and fair investigation” to find out who should be held accountable for the attack “based on evidence.”
In light of the US missile attack on Syria thoughts turn to the questions on how China will approach North Korea.
“China will not bother with the US request about suppressing North Korea, given that the US has insisted on setting up the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system in South Korea,” said Qiu Zhi-yun, a Taiwanese academic and columnist for United Daily News, in an article on Friday.
“Trump’s high-profile speech on the need for military actions against North Korea has ignored the fact that China has the ability to punish Pyongyang,” Qiu said. “If the US does not make a clear promise that it will withdraw the THAAD system, Beijing will not offer any help in the Korean peninsula.”
“North Korea has been stirring trouble, especially with the its own missile launch a day before the first meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and his US counterpart Trump,” Liang Yunxiang, a professor in the Department of International Politics in Peking University, said in an Oriental Daily report on Friday.
The tension in the Korean peninsula region was increasing as North Korea showed its unwillingness to follow China’s direction, while the US was losing its patience, Liang said.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson earlier on Thursday indicated the new administration had changed tack on Assad’s survival.
“It will seem that there would be no role for him to govern the Syrian people,” he told an impromptu press conference on Thursday. When asked about the possibility of removing Assad, Tillerson replied: “Those steps are underway.”
US military action puts 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.
The Pentagon said it had informed Russia ahead of the strikes, and that it did not target sections of the base in Syria where Russian forces were believed to be present, Reuters reported.
Russia’s deputy United Nations envoy, Vladimir Safronkov, had earlier on Thursday warned of “negative consequences” if the United States carried out military strikes.
“We have to think about negative consequences, negative consequences, and all the responsibility if military action occurred will be on shoulders of those who initiated such doubtful and tragic enterprise,” Safronkov told reporters.
When asked what those negative consequences could be, he said: “Look at Iraq, look at Libya.”
Trump has until now focussed 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 Turkish government says dozens of victims from Khan Sheikhoun were treated across the border in Turkey, and several died. Their autopsies revealed evidence of exposure to sarin nerve gas, the Health Ministry said Thursday.
Sarin is a chemical weapon that is prohibited in war, under several international treaties.
Turkey set up a decontamination center at a border crossing in Hatay province, where the victims were initially treated before being moved to hospitals.
Victims were suffocating, convulsing and foaming at the mouth, according to aid agencies, AP said. Paramedics used fire hoses to wash the chemicals from the bodies of victims, it said.
An eyewitness in Khan Sheikhoun, Syrian activist Samer al-Hussein, told NPR he witnessed first responders succumb to the chemicals.
“Dozens of children, women, men and elderly people lying on the ground, getting hosed down with water, out in the cold. Children trying to breathe a gasp of air, with saliva and foam coming out of their mouths and nostrils.”
The chemical strikes came at daybreak, he said, “before the children would be leaving for school or the parents for work.”
World leaders have denounced the Assad regime for the attack, which included a follow-up shelling targeting a hospital treating victims, NPR said.
Assad’s forces have used chemical weapons before, including a sarin attack on a Damascus suburb in 2013 that left hundreds dead, it said.
Assad and his Russian allies had maintained that the Syrian government had destroyed all its chemical weapons, as it agreed to do after the 2013 atrocity. Instead they claim a conventional weapons strike accidentally hit an arsenal of chemical weapons belonging to the rebels.
That explanation was rejected by chemical weapons experts, who said a conventional bomb strike would fail to disperse the gas in a way that would cause mass casualties, NPR said. Nerve agents are unstable and, in the case of Sarin, include the highly flammable precursor chemical isopropyl alcohol.
“You drop a bomb on it, the whole thing is going up in a huge fireball,” one expert, Dan Kaszeta, told NPR.