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US strikes Syrian airfield in first direct military action against Assad

US strikes Syrian airfield in first direct military action against Assad

Dozens of Tomahawk missiles have been launched at a government airfield in the wake of the Syrian leader’s use of chemical weapons against civilians

Spencer Ackerman and Ed Pilkington in New York, Ben Jacobs and Julian Borger in Washington
Friday 7 April 2017 04.06 BST First published on Friday 7 April 2017 02.35 BST

The US military has launched a heavy cruise missile attack on a Syrian airfield, in retaliation against Bashar al-Assad’s latest indiscriminate use of chemical weapons.

Donald Trump, who for years signaled his comfort with leaving Assad in power, abruptly switched course after seeing images of children gassed to death in Idlib province after Assad unleashed sarin gas on civilians.

The strike, which comprised 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles launched from the guided-missile destroyers USS Ross and Porter in the eastern Mediterranean, marked the first time the US has become a direct combatant against the Syrian regime.

An airfield at al-Shayrat near Homs was targeted, signaling a limited initial engagement on a target the military said was used to launch the sarin attack.

Though the US did target some of Syria’s formidable air defenses, it did not do so largely beyond al-Shayrat or in a sustained barrage, as it would typically do before launching a concerted airpower campaign. Instead, the Pentagon said, it attacked “aircraft, hardened aircraft shelters, petroleum and logistical storage, ammunition supply bunkers, air defense systems, and radars” at the airfield.

Though Trump lacked both congressional and international authorization for the strike, prominent US politicians immediately lent him political cover.

Trump said Thursday night at his Mar-a-Lago resort that he had ordered a “targeted military strike on the airfield in Syria from where the chemical attack was launched”.

After a frantic day of consultation with his military advisers, including defense secretary James Mattis and national security adviser HR McMaster, Trump said it was a “vital national security interest” of the US to prevent “the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons” after previous efforts at changing Assad’s behavior “had failed, and failed very dramatically”.

Yet Trump also called on the international community to “join us in seeking to end the slaughter and bloodshed in Syria and also to end terrorism of all kinds and all types”, leaving it unclear whether the US objective was retaliation for the sarin gas assault, destruction of Assad’s chemical stockpiles, or a push to oust Assad from power.

For its part, the Pentagon said the strike “was intended to deter the regime from using chemical weapons again”.

On Tuesday, dozens of civilians, including 10 children, were killed, apparently by a nerve agent attack on the town of Khan Sheikhun, in a region held by the rebels who oppose Assad’s regime.

Trump had already warned that his view had been changed by the shocking television images of children. And the attack came – even while he was hosting the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago home in Florida.

The attack was apparently launched at about 8.40pm eastern standard time – 4.40am in Syria.
In 2013 Assad’s forces used chemical weapons, including sarin and chlorine, killing more than 1,000 people. Barack Obama threatened military action over Assad’s use of sarin, an illegal weapon, but the US congress balked and Russia intervened to make a deal in which Assad handed over stockpiles of weapons.

The Tomahawks used are sophisticated missiles with the ability to shift course in the air, making them analogous to drones on a one-way mission. Syria’s formidable, Russian-supplied air defenses, largely along the Mediterranean coast, have long prompted warnings from US military officials against attacking Assad.

Since Russia sent aircraft, troops and personnel to bolster Assad in late 2015, the Syrian president’s fortunes have improved dramatically, and has retaken territory from the beleaguered and fractious armed opposition. The Russian presence has raised the stakes dramatically for US military planners, as the prospect of accidentally killing Russian personnel and sparking a larger war with a nuclear power reduces the US room for maneuver.

But the military, according to Pentagon spokesman Captain Jeff Davis, notified Russian forces before the strike, using a communications channel set up to ensure US pilots who attack Islamic State targets in eastern Syria do not accidentally come into conflict with their Russian counterparts.

It is likely that Russia would have passed the warning onto their Syrian allies. The US has roughly 1,000 troops in Syria, who may be placed at risk as the result of the strike.

“We are assessing the results of the strike. 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”, Davis said.

Davis said the Shayrat base had been used to store chemical weapons used by the regime until 2013, when a deal was struck with the US and Russia to remove its declared arsenal. He said it was used to deliver the chemical weapons dropped on Khan Sheikhun on Tuesday, but could not confirm whether any chemical weapons were still at the site. However, he stressed that the targets were chosen carefully to avoid the risk of hitting those weapons.

“The places we targeted were the things that made the airfield operate. It’s the petroleum facilities, it’s the aircraft radar, what they use for take-off and landing, as well as air-defence radar,” Davis said. “It’s the sites that are specific to making it operate, as well as hangars and aircraft themselves.”

US defense analysts have warned for years of attacking Assad without a plan for what it seeks to achieve or what a post-Assad Syria might look like.

Davis emphasized precautions the US military took to avoid killing Russian personnel occupying their own compound at Shayrat, citing the early-morning time of the attack and the choice of targets unlikely to have people inside. All the aircraft attacked were Syrian, Davis said, with Russian aircraft unharmed.

Neither the US Congress nor the United Nations have authorized war against Assad, who has brutalized his people but not the US. Mary Ellen O’Connell, an international-law scholar at the University of Notre Dame, said the US did not have a legal basis for military action.

“Under international law, he has zero right to attack Assad. It would be a reprisal attack. You won’t find any international law specialists who will find a legal right to carry out a reprisal”, O’Connell said.

It has been a dramatic about-face for Trump.

For years, Trump rejected any attack on Assad as a strategic folly, despite repeated chemical assaults of the sort that prompted Thursday’s missile strikes. Following Russia’s intervention in the conflict, Trump attacked rival Hillary Clinton’s openness to strikes against Assad’s forces as inviting a devastating conflict with Russia. Just days ago, his secretary of state and UN ambassador made statements indicating Trump was prepared to let Assad – who in November called Trump a “natural ally” – remain in power.

But earlier on Thursday, following Trump’s public anger at Assad for the sarin assault, secretary of state Rex Tillerson said “there is no role for [Assad] to govern the Syrian people” and called on Russia, where Tillerson will travel next week, to “consider carefully” its sponsorship of the Syrian dictator.

Tillerson suggested “steps are under way” to rally an international coalition to remove Assad diplomatically, a position long thwarted by Moscow and Beijing. Chinese president Xi Jinping is meeting with Trump at Mar-a-Lago in what

Longtime Syria hawks – and Trump critics – John McCain and Lindsey Graham rallied behind Trump in the pursuit of an attack they have urged for years.

Trump and the military “sent an important message the United States will no longer stand idly by as Assad, aided and abetted by Putin’s Russia, slaughters innocent Syrians with chemical weapons and barrel bombs”, Graham and McCain said in a joint statement.

The senior Democrat on the Senate foreign-relations committee, Ben Cardin, joined in support, but warned Trump: “any longer-term or larger military operation in Syria by the Trump Administration will need to be done in consultation with the Congress. Furthermore, it is the President’s responsibility to inform the legislative branch and the American people about his larger policy in Syria, as well as the legal basis for this action and any additional military

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