BEIRUT – World leaders rallied around the United States after it launched a missile strike early Friday on a Syrian air base in response to this week’s chemical attack, while Russia condemned the move as “aggression” and suspended crucial coordination with Washington in Syria’s congested skies.
The overnight missile attack, which marked the first time the United States has directly targeted Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, was condemned by his allies in Russia and Iran but welcomed by the Syrian opposition and its supporters, who expressed hope it signaled a turning point in the devastating six-year-old war.
The bombing represents President Trump’s most dramatic military order since taking office and thrusts the U.S. administration deeper into the complex Syrian conflict. The Obama administration threatened to attack Assad’s forces after previous chemical attacks, but never followed through. Trump called on “all civilized nations” to join the U.S. in seeking an end to the carnage in Syria.
About 60 U.S. Tomahawk missiles hit the Shayrat air base, southeast of Homs, a small installation with two runways, where aircraft often take off to bomb targets in northern and central Syria. The U.S. missiles hit at 3:45 a.m. Friday morning and targeted the base’s airstrips, hangars, control tower and ammunition areas, U.S. officials said.
They were fired from two warships in the Mediterranean Sea, in retaliation for Tuesday’s deadly chemical attack, which officials said used chlorine mixed with a nerve agent, possibly sarin.
Assad’s office called the U.S. missile strike “reckless” and “irresponsible.” The Syrian military said at least seven people were killed and nine wounded in the strike. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition monitor, also put the death toll at seven, including a general and three soldiers.
The Kremlin said President Vladimir Putin believes the U.S. strike is an “aggression against a sovereign state in violation of international law.” Spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Putin believes the U.S. launched the strikes under a “far-fetched pretext.”
“Washington’s move deals a significant blow to the Russia-U.S. relations, which are already in a deplorable shape,” Peskov said. He added that the attack creates a “serious obstacle” for creating an international coalition against terrorism.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry said it is suspending a memorandum with Washington – signed after Russia began an air campaign in support of Assad in September 2015 – under which the two countries exchange information about sorties over Syria.
The Kremlin later moved to diminish the attack, saying that just 23 of 59 cruise missiles reached the air base, destroying six Syrian jets but leaving the runway intact. Moscow also confirmed it had been informed of the attack in advance.
A U.S.-led coalition has been bombing so-called Islamic State targets in Syria since 2014, while Russia’s air force has been striking both extremist groups and Syrian rebels in order to aid Assad’s forces.
Saudi Arabia and Turkey, which support the Syrian opposition, welcomed the missile strike, with Riyadh calling it a “courageous decision” by Trump. Iran called it a “dangerous” unilateral action that would “strengthen terrorists” and further complicate the conflict.
Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Assad’s government “must be removed from leading Syria as soon as possible, and the best way to do that is by starting the transitional process.”
The British government says it was informed in advance about the strike and firmly supports the American action.
Prime Minister Theresa May’s office says the action was “an appropriate response to the barbaric chemical weapons attack launched by the Syrian regime, and is intended to deter further attacks.” France, Italy and Israel also welcomed the strikes.
A Syrian opposition group, the Syrian Coalition, said the U.S. attack puts an end to an age of “impunity” and should herald the start of a larger campaign against Damascus.
Maj. Jamil al-Saleh, a U.S.-backed rebel commander based in the area where the U.S. attack took place, told the Associated Press he hoped the strike would be a “turning point” in the six-year-old war, which has killed an estimated 400,000 people.
Assad’s government had been under mounting international pressure after the chemical attack, which killed 87 people, including 31 children. Even Russia has said its support is not unconditional.
Syria rejected the accusations and blames opposition fighters for stockpiling the chemicals. Russia has said the toxic agents were released when a Syrian airstrike hit a rebel chemical weapons arsenal on the eastern outskirts of Khan Sheikhoun, and that blame should not be apportioned until a full investigation has been carried out.
Russia’s intervention in Syria since September 2015 has turned the balance of power in Assad’s favor, and Moscow has used its veto power at the Security Council on several occasions to prevent sanctions against Damascus.
Trump had said the chemical attack crossed “many, many lines,” and put the blame squarely on Assad’s forces. Speaking Thursday on Air Force One, Trump said the attack “shouldn’t have happened, and it shouldn’t be allowed to happen.”
A survivor of the chemical attack on Khan Sheikhoun told the AP he hopes the U.S. missile attack puts an end to government airstrikes, creating a safe area for civilians.
Alaa Alyousef, a resident of Khan Sheikhoun, said the U.S. missile attack “alleviates a small part of our suffering,” but he said he worried it would be an “anesthetic” that numbs their pain and saves face for the international community.
“What good is a strike on Shayrat air base alone while we have more than 15 other air bases,” he said. Alyousef lost at least 25 relatives in the chemical attack.
The U.S. had initially focused on diplomatic efforts, pressing the United Nations Security Council to adopt a resolution drafted with Britain and France that would have condemned Syria’s suspected use of chemical weapons. But the vote was canceled because of differences among the 15 members.
This article was originally published by the Associated Press and is reprinted here with permission.
Never miss an update. Sign up here for our Syria Deeply newsletter to receive weekly updates, special reports and featured insights on one of the most critical issues of our time.