Washington: US-led forces carried out a wave of air strikes against Bashar al-Assad's Syrian regime on Saturday in response to alleged chemical weapons attacks that President Donald Trump branded the "crimes of a monster."
As US President Donald Trump embarked on a White House address to announce the action -- taken in defiance of Russia's threat to respond -- explosions were heard in the Syrian capital Damascus, signalling a new chapter in a brutal seven-year-old civil war.
President Donald Trump said the missile strikes were focused on chemical weapons sites and he made clear that the US is prepared to sustain the strikes until Syria stops using those weapons.
“The purpose of our actions tonight is to establish a strong deterrent against the production, spread and use of chemical weapons,” he said in a televised address from the White House. “We are prepared to sustain this response until the Syrian regime stops its use of its use of prohibited chemical agents.”
General Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters Friday that naval and air forces from the three countries struck three primary targets, including a chemical weapons research facility outside Damascus and a weapons storage facility near Homs. He said the strikes were designed to minimize the risk of civilian casualties.
“Right now, this is a one-time shot and I believe it has sent a very strong message to dissuade him, to deter him,” defence secretary Jim Mattis said, adding that there were no reports of losses. The UK defence ministry said the strikes were “successful.”
“Right now we have no additional attacks planned,” Mattis added.
Trump blasted Iran and Russia for supporting Assad’s regime, particularly in the wake of the suspected chemical attack.‘Mass murder’
“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?” he said. “The nations of the world can be judged by the friends they keep.”
The Russian ambassador to the US, Anatoly Antonov, condemned the strikes on Syria, saying that Moscow’s warnings weren’t heeded.
“Again, we are being threatened,” he said in a statement posted on Twitter. “We warned that such actions will not be left without consequences.”
Syrian state media slammed Western strikes on Saturday as illegal and "doomed to fail," after the US, France, and Britain launched a joint operation against the Damascus government.
According to AFP, several consecutive blasts were heard at 4:00 am (0100 GMT), followed by the sound of airplanes overhead. Smoke could be seen rising from the northern and eastern edges of the capital.
According to Russian defence ministry, over 100 missiles fired at Syria, 'significant number' intercepted.
US-led strikes in Syria have enforced a red line set for President Bashar al-Assad on the use of chemical weapons, an Israeli official said on Saturday.
"Last year, President Trump made clear that the use of chemical weapons crosses a red line. Tonight, under American leadership, the United States, France and the United Kingdom enforced that line," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
"Syria continues to engage in and provide a base for murderous actions, including those of Iran, that put its territory, its forces and its leadership at risk," the official said.
US, British and French air strikes on Syria are a violation of international law and are likely meant to prevent investigators from the global chemical weapons watchdog from doing their work, a senior Russian lawmaker was quoted by Interfax as saying on Saturday."
Western strikes early Saturday hit Syrian military bases and research centres in and around the capital and the country's centre, a monitor said, as the US, France, and Britain announced a joint operation."
President Donald Trump late Friday announced the launch of a joint US-British-French operation targeting Syria's "criminal" regime in retaliation for a suspected chemical attack that he called a "significant escalation" in the crisis."
Syria and its allies Russia and Iran lambasted the air strikes as a breach of international law and said the attack had targeted army depots in the Homs area.
"The tripartite aggression is a flagrant violation of international law," state news agency SANA said.
Russia has warned of 'consequences' after US-led strikes on Syria.
Syria said its air defences were “confronting the US-French-British aggression,” according to the state-run SANA news agency. Syria’s Observatory for Human Rights, a group monitoring the conflict, reported that the strikes targeted several military bases, Republican Guards locations and the Scientific Studies Research Center.
UK Prime Minister Theresa May said the “targeted” strikes were aimed to deter future chemical attacks.‘Not About Intervening’
“This is not about intervening in a civil war. It is not about regime change,” she said in statement.
French President Emmanuel Macron added in his own written statement, “Our response has been limited to the capacities of the Syrian regime allowing the production and use of chemical weapons.”
Trump’s statement on US policy toward Syria came after days of speculation that the US would launch a strike against Syria in retaliation for an apparent chemical weapons attack last weekend that killed scores of civilians. A US military response was widely expected to include missile strikes.
An assault has been anticipated since Trump vowed last Sunday to respond forcibly to a “horrible attack” on Douma, a town outside Damascus that was among the last strongholds for rebels opposed to Assad. Estimates of civilian casualties ranged from 21 to more than 78.
But the president also made clear that the US actions has limits and that the US commitment to acting in the Middle East won’t last forever.'Troubled place'
“We will try to make it better,” Trump said. ”But the Middle East is a troubled place.”
Last April, Trump ordered a cruise missile strike against a Syrian airbase last April after a similar chemical weapons attack on civilians. That was the first direct American assault on Assad’s forces since the conflict in Syria began in March 2011.
Some Democrats criticized Trump’s decision, saying the launch was reckless and conducted without congressional approval.
“Absent a robust diplomatic process, military strikes will not change Assad’s calculus regarding the use of chemical weapons against his own people,” Democratic Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts said in a statement. “President Trump has failed to launch a multi-faceted diplomatic process in Syria and appears ready to repeat that failure again.”
But other Democrats said that Syria needed to pay a price for its actions.
“A pinpointed, limited action to punish and hopefully deter Assad from doing this again is appropriate, but the administration has to be careful about not getting us into a greater and more involved war in Syria,” Democratic leader Chuck Schumer of New York said in a statement.
The attack in Douma complicated Trump’s plans for the region. Before reports of the latest chemical attack, Trump said the American military would be withdrawing from Syria “very soon,” once the defeat of Islamic State militants was secured. Last weekend, he condemned the chemical attack in a tweet and warned there would be a “big price to pay.”Assailing Putin
He also for the first time tweeted direct criticism of Russian President Vladimir Putin, after long maintaining they could work together. “President Putin, Russia and Iran are responsible for backing Animal Assad,” Trump said.
Trump told Moscow on Wednesday to “get ready” for an American missile strike in Syria, after a Kremlin diplomat said that any rockets aimed toward Russian forces there — as well as any plane or ship that fired them — would be targeted.
Hopes of averting a direct confrontation rose, however, after Trump seemed to hold off as he consulted allies, and a senior Russian official said the envoy’s threats had been misinterpreted.
The attack occurred just days after John Bolton took office as Trump’s national security adviser. He has advocated for a more assertive American posture in the region to counter Iran’s influence.
Iran and Russia have backed Assad in his effort to defeat rebels that sought to overthrow him since he moved to suppress a groundswell of protests at the height of the Arab Spring movement.
Syria has denied using banned chemical weapons in a war that has killed more than 500,000 people and displaced half of the prewar population of 23 million. Its official Sana news agency scoffed at the reports that chemical weapons had been used in Douma, citing an unidentified official who said government forces advancing on the town didn’t “need to use any chemical weapons as the media channels that support the terrorists are fabricating.”
Russia has variously said there was no chemical attack in Douma or that the US and its allies orchestrated it to undermine Assad. “The footage that was shown was clearly staged,” Russia’s Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia told the United Nations Security Council.'America first'
There are about 2,000 US troops in Syria, advising forces fighting against Islamic State fighters clinging to ever-shrinking territory, particularly along the border with Iraq.
As part of his “America First” campaign pledge, Trump had promised to remove the US from costly and prolonged foreign entanglements. The continuing involvement of American forces in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, where the US has fought extended conflicts since 11 September 2001, continues to be a source of consternation for him.
The White House has said the mission to fight Islamic State in Syria was “coming to a rapid end” while offering no timetable for US withdrawal.
During simultaneous events in Washington last week, the president said he would make a decision “very quickly” on when US troops would pull out of Syria while his top commander in the region — Army General Joseph Votel, head of US Central Command — said he saw a continuing role for the US military in helping to stabilize the divided country. It’s an endeavour that is projected to cost at least $100 billion and take at least 10 years to complete.