USA, UK, France launch missile strikes in Syria

The attack involved munitions fired from aircraft and naval vessels, including some 100 Tomahawk cruise missiles. The Pentagon also employed a B-1 strategic bomber

One of the missile attacks lights up the Damascus sky as it hits targets related to suspected chemical attacks by the Assad government
One of the missile attacks lights up the Damascus sky as it hits targets related to suspected chemical attacks by the Assad government

Coordinated airstrikes on targets associated with the Syrian regime's chemical weapons program have been carried out by a coalition of three nations.

The White House said it was "very confident" that the strikes had significantly degraded Syrian chemical weapons capability.

US President Donald Trump ordered a military attack against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on Friday, joining allies Britain and France in launching missile strikes in retaliation for what they say was the deliberate gassing of Syrian civilians.

Syrian TV said three civilians were wounded in one of the US-led strikes on a military base in Homs.

The coordinated strike marked the second time in a little over a year that Trump has used force against Assad, who U.S. officials believe has continued to test the West’s willingness to accept gruesome chemical attacks. 

Trump, speaking from the White House late on Friday, said the attack last weekend was “a significant escalation” of Assad’s use of chemical weapons and warranted a stepped-up international response.

The alleged chemical weapons use was not the work of “a man”, Trump said. They were “the crimes of a monster."

Trump said the mandate for an allied attack was open-ended, but Pentagon chiefs later said the strikes Friday would be repeated only if Assad took further action that warranted a response.

The missiles struck three sites — a scientific research centre near Damascus, a chemical weapons storage facility near Homs and a storage facility and command post also near Homs.

Unlike the unilateral U.S. strike in Syria last year, in which only one site was attacked, the operation was aimed at the “long-term degradation of Syria’s ability to research, develop and deploy chemical weapons.”

The attack involved munitions fired from aircraft and naval vessels, including about 100 Tomahawk cruise missiles. The Pentagon also employed the B-1 strategic bomber.

The assault came despite the lack of a definitive independent finding that chemical weapons were used or who had deployed them. An initial team of inspectors had only arrived in Syria on Friday.

US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis declined to say whether he thought the attack would prevent Assad from using chemical weapons again.

“Nothing is certain in these kinds of matters. However, we used a little over double the number of weapons this year than we used last year,” he said. “It was done on targets that we believed were selected to hurt the chemical weapons program. We confined it to the chemical weapons-type targets.”

The US said the only communications that took place between the United States and Russia before the operation were “the normal deconfliction of the airspace, the procedures that are in place for all of our operations in Syria.”

The Russian ambassador to the United States, Anatoly Antonov, warned that “such actions will not be left without consequences. All responsibility for them rests with Washington, London and Paris.”

It was not immediately clear how the Syrian military responded to the attack. British Prime Minister Theresa May issued a statement saying the attacks were a response to “circumstances of pure horror.”

In a statement, French President Emmanuel Macron said, “Our response has been limited to the Syrian regimes facilities enabling the production and deployment of chemical weapons.”

The assault followed repeated threats of military action from Trump, who has been moved by civilian suffering to set aside his concerns about foreign military conflicts, since the reported chemical attack that killed civilians in a rebel-held town outside Damascus last weekend. 

The operation comes after nearly a week of debate in which Pentagon leaders voiced concerns that an attack could pull the United States into Syria’s civil war and trigger a dangerous conflict with Assad ally Russia — without necessarily halting chemical attacks.

Both Syria and Russia have denied involvement in the attack, which Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov alleged had been staged. 

The episode is the latest illustration of the hazards arising from a conflict that has killed an estimated half-million people and drawn in world powers since it began as peaceful protests in 2011. 

Syria demands international condemnation of attack

Syria’s Foreign Ministry said the airstrikes were a threat to international peace and security as well as being a "flagrant violation of international law and the principals of UN charter," according to the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency.

"Syria calls on the international community to strongly condemn this aggression, which will lead to nothing but the igniting of tensions around the world and pose a threat to international peace and security as a whole," the Ministry said.

Hundreds of Syrians gathered at landmark squares in the Syrian capital on Saturday, honking their car horns, flashing victory signs and waving Syrian flags in scenes of defiance that followed unprecedented joint air strikes by the United States, France and Britain.

Other reactions

Russia has reacted with displeasure. The US and its allies struck civil and military facilities in Syria, violating the UN Charter and international law, Russian President Vladimir Putin said, responding to the intervention in Syria. Russia is calling for an immediate United Nations Security Council meeting to discuss the "aggressive actions" of the United States and its allies, Russia's President Vladimir Putin said in a statement. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei said the attacks were a “crime.’’

UK's May: Strikes should deter those who would use "nerve agent on Britain's streets"

British Prime Minister Theresa May said that the strikes against Syria were "absolutely in Britain's national interest."

She said the action was taken to reinforce international norms against the use of chemical weapons, adding that the use of a "nerve agent on Britain's streets is part of a systematic pattern of disregarding these norms."

The UK government has accused Moscow of being behind the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia with a nerve agent in Salisbury.

The Syria strikes send a "clear message to anyone else who thinks they can use chemical weapons with impunity," May said.

"Both right and legal to take military action"

She said she approved "targeted and coordinated strikes to degrade Syria's chemical weapons capabilty and deter their use."

May said the strikes were in response to the apparent chemical weapons attack in Douma last week, an attack on "innocent families who ... were seeking shelter."

"A significant body of information including intelligence indicates the Syrian regime was responsible for this attack," she said. "Reliable intelligence indicates Syrian government officials coordinated the use of chlorine in Douma."

On previous occasions when chemical weapons have been used "any attempt to hold the perpetrators to account has been blocked by Russia at the (United Nations) Security Council," May said, adding she feared "diplomatic action on its own will be no more successful than it was in the past."

After seeking legal advice from the UK's Attorney General and others, May said the decision that it was "both right and legal to take military action," was taken. The airstrikes were "not about intervening in a civil war (or) regime change," May said.

May ignored a convention that she seek parliamentary approval before launching any military action. While she was not legally required to let lawmakers vote, many British politicians, including opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, had called on her to do so.

In a statement he published as May was speaking, Corbyn described the decision to take military action as "legally questionable" and one which risked further escalating an already devastating conflict.

"Britain should be playing a leadership role to bring about a ceasefire in the conflict, not taking instructions from Washington and putting British military personnel in harm’s way," Corbyn said.

Taking questions at a press conference this morning, the British PM said : "There is no graver decision for a Prime Minister to take to send troops into combat. It is a decision I have not taken the end of the day I felt it was the right thing to do...It is in the interest of all our futures that the use of chemical weapons stops."

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