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US warships fire cruise missiles on Syrian airbase
n the toughest direct action yet by the US in Syria’s six-year-old civil war, US warships stationed in the Mediterranean Sea rained cruise missiles on an airbase controlled by President Bashar al-Assad.
The direct intervention came hours after US President Donald Trump said that the Syrian chemical weapons in rebel-held areas had “crossed many limits”.
This week’s chemical attack in the Syrian town of Khan Sheikhoun had killed at least 70 people, many of them children. The Syrian government has denied it was behind the attack.
Ordering the missile strikes, Trump said he acted in America’s “vital national security interest.”
Fifty-nine Tomahawk missiles were launched from the USS Porter and USS Ross around 8:40 pm EDT, striking multiple targets – including the airstrip, aircraft and fuel stations – on the Shayrat Air Base, which the Pentagon says was used to store chemical weapons.
“Initial indications are that this strike has severely damaged or destroyed Syrian aircraft and support infrastructure and equipment at Shayrat Airfield, reducing the Syrian government’s ability to deliver chemical weapons,” said Pentagon spokesman Captain Jeff Davis.
US said that they informed Russian forces ahead of the missile attacks and that there were no strikes on sections of the base where Russians were present. But they said the Trump administration did not seek Moscow’s approval.
Syrian state TV said that “American aggression” had targeted a Syrian military base with “a number of missiles and cited a Syrian military source as saying the strike had “led to losses.”
Trump said: “Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad launched a horrible chemical weapons attack on innocent civilians. … 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,” Trump said.
“There can be no dispute that Syria used banned chemical weapons, violated its obligations under the chemical weapons convention and ignored the urging of the UN Security Council,” he added.
Trump appeared to have opted for measured and targeted air attacks instead of a full-blown assault on Assad’s forces and installations.
“We feel the strike itself was proportionate,” said US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
US military action put Trump at odds with Russia, which has air and ground forces in Syria after intervening there on Assad’s side in 2015 and turning the tide against mostly Sunni Muslim rebel groups.
Importantly, speaking just before the strikes were announced, Russia’s deputy UN envoy, Vladimir Safronkov, warned of “negative consequences” if the United States went ahead with military action, saying the blame would be “on shoulders of those who initiated such doubtful and tragic enterprise.”
Trump has until now focused his Syria policy almost exclusively on defeating Islamic State militants in northern Syria, where US special forces are supporting Arab and Kurdish armed groups.
The deployment of military force against Assad marked a major reversal for Trump.
Obama set a “red line” in 2012 against Assad’s use of chemical weapons. When Obama then threatened military action after a 2013 chemical attack, Trump issued a series of tweets opposing the idea, including “Do NOT attack Syria, fix USA.”
Obama backtracked on the air strikes, and after the latest attack, Trump was quick to blame his Democratic predecessor for “weakness and irresolution” that he said emboldened Assad.