BEIRUT – The United States, the United Kingdom and France targeted Syria with military strikes early Saturday in response to last weekend’s suspected poison gas attack on the town of Douma.
The Russian Defense Ministry said that U.S., British and French aircraft and navy ships launched more than 100 cruise and air-to-ground missiles, according to the Associated Press. The Russian military said Syria’s air defense systems shot-down 71 out of 103 cruise missiles launched before sunrise.
Marine Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, director of the Joint Staff at the Pentagon, however, denied Russia’s claim, saying that no missiles launched by the U.S. and its allies were stopped. He put the total number of missiles fired at 105, including 66 Tomahawk cruise missiles.
The attack marks the largest intervention by western powers against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad since the start of the conflict. It is also the first such coordinated operation against Syrian government targets since the beginning of the war.
The Pentagon said explosions hit the capital, Damascus, as well as two locations near the city of Homs.
The Syrian military confirmed that missiles hit the Scientific Research Center in Barzeh near Damascus, which includes an educational center and scientific laboratories. The attack on the facility, which is allegedly connected to the production of chemical and biological weapons, lead only to material damages, the military said. Syrian state TV broadcasted images of the research center on Saturday, showing mounds of rubble outside a destroyed building and a burned vehicle, the AP said.
General Joseph Dunford, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that a chemical weapons storage facility west of Homs and a chemical weapons equipment storage site that also houses an important command post, also near Homs, were targeted. One of the facilities was used for the production of the nerve agent sarin, he said.
Syria’s state-run SANA news agency said that the missiles that targeted one of the facilities in Homs were “thwarted and diverted from their path, and injured three civilians.” The strikes on the second only destroyed a building and caused other material damage but no human losses.
The Russian military said that Syria’s air defenses also shot down 12 cruise missiles targeting the Dumayr air base east of Damascus.
There have been no reports of casualties among Syrian troops or allied forces. The Russian military said Syrian military facilities only suffered minor damage.
An unidentified “official in a regional alliance that backs Damascus” told Reuters that the targeted facilities had been evacuated days ago thanks to a warning from Russia. “If it is finished, and there is no second round, it will be considered limited,” the official said. Rami Abdulrahman the director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also said that all the targeted locations were evacuated following warnings from Moscow.
French Defence Minister Florence Parly said Saturday that Russians were warned before the strike took place.
According to Russia’s Defense Ministry, none of the missiles launched in Saturday’s attack entered zones guarded by Russia’s missile defense.
The U.S., the U.K. and France Alliance
The morning after the attack, U.S. President Donald Trump wrote on Twitter that the strike had been “perfectly executed” and that it “could not have had a better result.”
Trump first announced the “precision strikes” from the White House on Friday evening. He said the targets were “associated with the chemical weapons capabilities of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.”
“The purpose of our actions tonight is to establish a strong deterrent against the production, spread and use of chemical weapons,” Trump said.
British Prime Minister Theresa May said the “limited and targeted strike” aimed at minimizing civilian casualties. French President Emmanuel Macron said the strikes only targeted Syria’s chemical weapons facilities.
Meanwhile, U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis said that, as of now, the strikes are a “one-time shot,” according to the Associated Press. However, Trump said that there was potential for further attacks if Assad did not stop using chemical weapons.
“We are prepared to sustain this response until the Syrian regime stops its use of prohibited chemical agents,” the U.S. president said in a televised address.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said on Saturday that France’s “objectives were met,” speaking to BFM TV. He also threatened further strikes if chemical weapons are used again in Syria.
Russia, Iran and the Syrian Government’s Response
Russian President Vladimir Putin denounced the attack as an “act of aggression” and said that the strikes had a “destructive influence on the entire system of international relations.” Moscow has called for an emergency U.N. Security Council meeting to discuss the attack.
Syrian state media called the attack a “flagrant violation of international law.”
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei described the attacks as a crime and said that that “the president of the United States, the president of France and the British prime minister are criminals.” He also said that the missile strike would achieve nothing.
The International Community’s Response
At Russia’s request, the U.N. Security Council is expected to meet Saturday morning in New York to discuss the strikes, which were carried out without the council’s approval.
European leaders expressed their support for the strikes on Saturday. The European Union called on “all countries, notably Russia and Iran, to use their influence to prevent any further use of chemical weapons, notably by the Syrian regime,” in a statement released on Saturday.
The E.U. also warned that it was ready to impose further sanctions to deter the use of chemical weapons in Syria. Last month, the E.U. sanctioned four individuals for their alleged role in the “development and use of chemical weapons” against civilians in Syria, including “a high-ranking military official and three scientists” who work at the Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Centre.
E.U. foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said in a statement that the E.U. had been informed of the targeted facilities and is “supportive of all efforts aimed at the prevention of the use of chemical weapons.” European Council President Donald Tusk wrote on Twitter that “the EU will stand with our allies on the side of justice.” German Chancellor Angela Merkel called the intervention “necessary and appropriate,” according to Politico. Spanish Foreign Minister Alfonso Dastis wrote on Twitter that the strikes were “legitimate and proportionate.”
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said in a statement that he supports the strike on Syria, adding that it “will reduce the regime’s ability to further attack the people of Syria with chemical weapons.”
Alessandria Masi contributed to this report.