US launches surprise missile strike on Syrian regime airfield
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Trump: 'Tonight, I ordered a targeted military strike on the airfield in Syria from where the chemical attack was launched'

US launches surprise missile strike on Syrian regime airfield

Attack is retaliation for alleged nerve gas attack by Assad forces in Idlib province that killed scores, including children; Trump calls on ‘civilized nations’ to ‘end this slaughter’

Illustrative photo of a Tomahawk cruise missile fired from aboard a US destroyer. (Wikimedia Commons)
Illustrative photo of a Tomahawk cruise missile fired from aboard a US destroyer. (Wikimedia Commons)

US President Donald Trump ordered a massive military strike against a Syrian military airbase late Thursday in retaliation for a deadly chemical weapons attack that the US and other western countries blame on the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

A US official said 59 precision guided missiles hit the regime-held Shayrat Airfield, north of the Syrian capital Damascus, from which Washington believes Tuesday’s deadly attack was launched.

Pentagon officials said the Tomahawk missiles were fired from two warships in the Mediterranean Sea, the destroyers USS Porter and USS Ross of the US Navy’s Sixth Fleet. The US missiles hit at 3:45 am Friday morning local time and targeted the base’s airstrips, hangars, control tower and ammunition areas, officials said.

In its first reaction to the strike, Syrian state TV confirmed that the missile attack targeted military targets and called it an “aggression.”

In this image provided by the US Navy, the guided-missile destroyer USS Porter (DDG 78) launches a tomahawk land attack missile in the Mediterranean Sea, Friday, April 7, 2017.(Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Ford Williams/U.S. Navy via AP)
In this image provided by the US Navy, the guided-missile destroyer USS Porter (DDG 78) launches a tomahawk land attack missile in the Mediterranean Sea, Friday, April 7, 2017.(Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Ford Williams/U.S. Navy via AP)

“A US act of aggression (was committed) against Syrian military targets, using several missiles,” the channel said soon after the US announced the strike.

State TV also said the attack had “led to losses” on the ground.

The move comes amid stalled UN talks over a Security Council call for an investigation into the suspected chemical attack Tuesday that left at least 86 dead — including 27 children — in the northern Idlib province and provoked global outrage.

Results from post-mortems performed on victims point to exposure to the deadly sarin nerve agent, according to Turkish health officials who are treating some of the wounded.

Immediately after the US strike, Trump called for “all civilized nations” to work to end the bloodshed in Syria.

“On Tuesday, Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad launched a horrible chemical weapons attack on innocent civilians using a deadly nerve agent,” Trump said in a televised address from his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida.

“Tonight, I ordered a targeted military strike on the airfield in Syria from where the chemical attack was launched. It is in this vital national security interest of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons,” he said, adding, “Years of previous attempts at changing Assad’s behavior have all failed, and failed very dramatically.

“Tonight I call on all civilized nations to join us in seeking to end this slaughter and bloodshed in Syria and also to end terrorism of all kinds and all types,” he said.

“We hope that as long as America stands for justice, then peace and harmony will in the end prevail.”

Earlier Thursday, the US threatened Syria with military action, with Trump warning “something should happen” over the attack.

The sudden US attack came within hours of Russia warning of potential “negative consequences” if Washington strikes Syria.

US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley holds photos of victims as she speaks at the UN Security Council in an emergency session on April 5, 2017 about the suspected deadly chemical attack that killed civilians, including children, in Syria. (AFP/Timothy A. Clary)
US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley holds photos of victims as she speaks at the UN Security Council in an emergency session on April 5, 2017 about the suspected deadly chemical attack that killed civilians, including children, in Syria. (AFP/Timothy A. Clary)

“All responsibility if military action occurs will be on the shoulders of those who initiated such a doubtful tragic enterprise,” Russian Ambassador to the UN Vladimir Safronkov said.

US officials said Russia was warned shortly before the US missile strike.

“Russian forces were notified in advance of the strike using the established deconfliction line,” said Navy Captain Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, referring to a special military hotline.

“US military planners took precautions to minimize risk to Russian or Syrian personnel located at the airfield.”

The sudden US military action against Assad’s regime marks a startling about-face for Trump, and possibly a crucial shift in American involvement in Syria’s grueling six-year civil war.

A week earlier, White House officials still defended the president’s strategy of ending the US policy seeking Assad’s ouster. But at a Wednesday press conference in which he discussed the chemical weapons attack, Trump said his policy approach was flexible. “I have that flexibility, and it’s very, very possible — and I will tell you, it’s already happened that my attitude toward Syria and Assad has changed very much,” he said.

CNN reported that Trump informed other countries prior to the attack, although it did not specify whether Israel was among those countries. Israel is concerned about any escalation along the Golan Heights, though the area is not near the targeted base.

A Syrian opposition group has welcomed the US attack on a Syrian air base, saying it should be just the beginning.

The Turkey-based Syrian Coalition says in a statement Friday that Trump has “closed the page on impunity” which his predecessor Obama had encouraged.

The statement released by Ahmad Ramadan, a senior official within the group, urged Trump to “hit the snake’s head” and anyone who ordered and implemented the chemical weapons attack on Khan Sheikhoun.

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had earlier vowed an “appropriate response” to the attack in Khan Sheikhoun in the rebel-held Idlib province.

As the Pentagon readied military options, the UN Security Council met behind closed doors Thursday evening to try to bridge differences over a draft resolution demanding an investigation of the suspected chemical attack.

Britain, France and the United States had pushed for a vote on their proposed measure, but decided to hold off during the meeting.

Diplomats said a vote was more likely to take place on Friday.

The fast-moving events come just days after the Trump administration had signaled it was no longer looking to ouster the Syrian leader.

But on Thursday, Trump said that “what Assad did is terrible.”

“What happened in Syria is truly one of the egregious crimes,” he said. “I guess he’s running things, so I guess something should happen.”

An unconscious Syrian child receives treatment at a hospital in Khan Sheikhun, a rebel-held town in the northwestern Syrian Idlib province, following a suspected toxic gas attack on April 4, 2017. (AFP Photo/Omar Haj Kadour)
An unconscious Syrian child receives treatment at a hospital in Khan Sheikhun, a rebel-held town in the northwestern Syrian Idlib province, following a suspected toxic gas attack on April 4, 2017. (AFP Photo/Omar Haj Kadour)

Trump’s comments came as Tillerson — who like the president was in Florida to welcome China’s Xi Jinping — called for “a political process that would lead to Assad leaving” and said his future role in the country was “uncertain.”

The US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, has warned that Washington could take unilateral action if the world body fails to respond to the allegations of chemical weapons use.

A US official said shortly before the launch of the strikes that the Pentagon was presenting the White House with a range of possible options, including cruise missile or air strikes on Assad’s air fields in a bid to ground his air force — but that no decisions had been taken.

The American move may raise tensions with Russia, which has deployed advanced air defenses in the country to protect its ally Assad, and has military advisers on the ground.

Syrian denial

Trump on Wednesday decried the attack as an “affront to humanity.” He seemed horrified by photographs showing dead children and victims suffering convulsions, breathing problems and foaming at the mouth.

“It crossed a lot of lines for me,” Trump said, alluding to Barack Obama’s failure to enforce his own “red line” on the use of chemical weapons in Syria four years ago.

In 2013, Trump had urged then-president Obama not to intervene against Assad.

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem on Thursday repeated the regime’s denial it conducted a chemical strike.

“The Syrian army has not, did not and will not use this kind of weapon — not just against our own people, but even against the terrorists that attack our civilians with their mortar rounds,” he said.

President Donald Trump speak during a news conference with Jordan's King Abdullah II in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, Wednesday, April 5, 2017. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
President Donald Trump speak during a news conference with Jordan’s King Abdullah II in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, Wednesday, April 5, 2017. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Russia also stood by its longtime ally, with President Vladimir Putin warning against a rush to judgment.

Putin underlined “the unacceptability of making unfounded accusations against anyone before a thorough and impartial international investigation is carried out.”

‘Terrible responsibility’

The UN children’s agency UNICEF says at least 546 people were wounded in the suspected chemical attack.

More than 30 people were transferred across the border into Turkey for treatment, and Ankara said a preliminary probe found a link between these injuries and sarin.

If confirmed to be a chemical attack, this would be among the worst such incidents in Syria’s civil war, which has killed more than 320,000 people since it began in March 2011.

Seeking to avoid a showdown between Russia and the West, the Security Council on Thursday circulated a compromise resolution on a probe into the apparent chemical attack.

But the text drew a cool response from the United States and a council diplomat said the United States was showing “no flexibility.”

An earlier vote on a draft compromise was postponed, with the Russian ambassador to the UN saying the postponement “opens up a window for further work” on a compromise.

Russia had rejected a Western-backed resolution as “categorically unacceptable” and put forward a rival draft that does not include specific demands for cooperation from the Syrian government.

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons said Thursday it has opened an “ongoing investigation” and has “initiated contact with the Syrian authorities.”

Syria officially relinquished its chemical arsenal and signed the Chemical Weapons Convention in 2013 to avert military action after it was accused of an attack outside Damascus that killed hundreds.

But there have been repeated allegations of chemical weapons use since.

AP and JTA contributed to this report.

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