The US and allies military struck Syria on Friday night in response to a suspected chemical weapons attack on a Damascus suburb. In an address to the nation, President Trump said the US “launched precision strikes” on targets associated with the Syrian chemical weapons program.
“We are prepared to sustain this response until the Syrian regime stops its use of prohibited chemical agents,” Trump said.
The strikes were undertaken along with the UK and France. Trump said that the US does not want an “indefinite presence” in Syria and looks “forward to the day when we can bring our warriors home.”
Trump described the Middle East as a “troubled place” but singled out Russia and Iran as “most responsible for supporting, equipping, and financing the criminal Assad regime.”
“Russia must decide if it will continue down this dark path or if it will join with civilized nations as a force for stability and peace,” Trump continued. “Hopefully some day we’ll get along with Russia and maybe even Iran, but maybe not.”
Just minutes after Trump’s address, witnesses reported hearing large explosions in Damascus and in the countryside of Homs. Early reports from Syria identified eight locations where missiles appeared to have struck, including military bases, research facilities, and a Republican guard brigade.
UK Prime Minister Theresa May also said in a statement Friday night that she had authorized military strikes in response to Syria’s use of chemical weapons. The Assad regime has demonstrated a “pattern” of using the weapons on civilians, May said, and the UK had “sought every possible diplomatic channel” to resolve the crisis.
“So there is no practicable alternative to the use of force to degrade and deter the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian Regime,” she continued.
May added that the strikes were “not about intervening in a civil war,” but rather about sending “a clear signal to anyone else who believes they can use chemical weapons with impunity.”
French President Emmanuel Macron said in a statement Friday night that his country’s “red line” had been crossed by the April 7 chemical attack, and as a result his country joined in the strikes against Syria’s chemical arsenal.
The strikes came after days of deliberations with his military leaders and national security advisers that pitted the Pentagon’s concerns about an escalating conflict and Trump and his new national security adviser John Bolton’s desire for a broader, more muscular response. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis even signaled what he was advising the president while testifying on Capitol Hill on Thursday, telling lawmakers his biggest concern was “how do we keep this from escalating out of control, if you get my drift on that.”
It also came during a week that saw the FBI raid of Trump’s personal lawyer’s office and the release of former FBI director James Comey’s book, both reportedly enraging the president.
The decision to take military action in Syria followed conflicting statements from the president, who on Sunday vowed that there would be a “big price to pay” for the attack. After declaring on Monday that “major decisions” would be made in the next 24 to 48 hours, he then expanded his threats to the backers of the Assad regime, directly warning Russia to “get ready” because missiles “will be coming. By Thursday, Trump was saying a strike “could be very soon or not so soon at all,” and “we’ll see what happens.”
On Monday, the USS Donald Cook left port in Cyprus, moving within striking distance of Syria in the eastern Mediterranean.
The suspected chemical attack on the besieged town of Douma over the weekend killed at least 42 people and injured more than 500, according to local rescue workers. Many of them died while sheltering underground in basements to escape shelling. The White Helmets, a Syrian civil defense organization, published graphic images showing the bodies of entire families who were killed in their basements, and warned that the death count was likely to rise.
It is the worst such attack since Assad’s forces dropped sarin and other chemicals in the northern Syrian town of Khan Sheikhoun a year ago, killing more than 80 people on April 4, 2017. The US retaliated three days later by launching 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at a Syrian airbase allegedly used to carry out the attack.
US, British, and French officials denounced the Douma attack, and Trump spoke with French President Emmanuel Macron and British Prime Minister Theresa May several times. They agreed to “coordinate a strong, joint response,” the White House said.
Inspectors from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons were due to start their work in Douma on Saturday, outside the capital of Damascus. They intended to collect samples and look for other indications to determine whether banned chemicals were used in the April 7 attack.
Both the Syrian and Russian governments denied any involvement in the suspected chemical attack, which came after a weeks-long campaign by Syrian government forces to oust rebels from their last major stronghold near Damascus. Hours before the US strike, rebel fighters and civilians evacuated the besieged town on buses as part of a Russian-sponsored deal.
Under the deal, Russian military police reportedly entered the city to protect civilians who remained behind. It was unclear if international monitors would have access to the site of the suspected chemical attack.
It was the second military strike on Syria government facilities within a week. Early Monday, missiles struck a military air base in Homs in central Syria. Although Syrian state media initially called it “an American aggression,” the Pentagon denied that the US was conducting air strikes “at this time.” Syria and Russia later then accused Israel of being behind the attack on the T4 military airport in Homs.
Fourteen people died in that attack, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitoring organization. The group reported that among the dead were Iranian or Iran-backed fighters.
Last year’s US strike was launched from the USS Ross and USS Porter, two US Navy guided-missile destroyers, in the eastern Mediterranean. Mattis claimed that the US had taken out 20 percent of Syria’s operational aircraft, as well as hangars and fuel storage.
“The Syrian government would be ill-advised ever again to use chemical weapons,” Mattis said.
But the strikes had little impact. A day later, planes were reportedly taking off from the targeted airbase again. Before Saturday’s Douma attack, there were at least five other chemical attacks since last April’s US strike, according to a report from the advocacy group Human Rights Watch.