MOSCOW: The United States fired cruise missiles on Friday at a Syrian airbase from which it said a deadly chemical weapons attack had been launched this week, the first direct U.S. assault on the government of Bashar al-Assad in six years of civil war.
U.S. President Donald Trump ordered the step his predecessor Barack Obama never took: directly targeting Assad’s military with air strikes in punishment for the chemical weapons attack, which killed at least 70 people, many of them children.
That catapulted the United States into a confrontation with Russia, which has military advisers on the ground assisting its close ally Assad.
“Years of previous attempts at changing Assad’s behavior have all failed and failed very dramatically,” Trump said as he announced the attack from his Florida resort, Mar-a-Lago, where he was meeting Chinese President Xi Jinping.
“Even beautiful babies were cruelly murdered in this very barbaric attack,” he said of Tuesday’s chemical weapons strike, which Western countries blame on Assad’s forces. “No child of God should ever suffer such horror.”
The swift action is likely to be interpreted as a signal to Russia, and also to other countries such as North Korea, China and Iran where Trump has faced foreign policy tests early in his presidency.
The Syrian army said the U.S. attack killed six people at its air base near the city of Homs. It called the attack “blatant aggression” and said it made the United States a “partner” of “terrorist groups” including Islamic State. Homs Governor Talal Barazi told Reuters the death toll was seven.
A spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin said the strike had seriously damaged ties between Washington and Moscow. Putin, a staunch ally of Assad, regarded the U.S. action as “aggression against a sovereign nation” on a “made-up pretext”, spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.
Russian television showed craters and rubble at the site of the airbase and said nine aircraft had been destroyed.
ATTACK SAID TO BE “ONE-OFF”
U.S. officials said they had taken pains to ensure Russian troops were not killed, warning Russian forces in advance and avoiding striking parts of the base where Russians were present.
Western allies of the United States spoke out in support of the decision to launch the strikes. Several countries said they were notified in advance, but none had been asked to take part.
U.S. officials and allies described the attack as a one-off that would not lead to further escalation. It signaled Trump’s determination to take “decisive action”, U.S. officials said.
For years, Washington has backed rebel groups fighting against Assad in a complex multi-sided civil war under way since 2011 that has killed more than 400,000 people. The war has driven half of Syrians from their homes, creating the world’s worst refugee crisis.
The United States has been conducting air strikes against Islamic State militants who control territory in eastern and northern Syria , and a small number of U.S. troops are on the ground assisting anti-Islamic State militias. But until now, Washington has avoided direct confrontation with Assad.
Russia, meanwhile, joined the war on Assad’s behalf in 2015, action that decisively turned the momentum of the conflict in the Syrian government’s favor.
His decision to strike Syrian government forces is a particularly notable shift for Trump, who in the past had repeatedly said he wanted better relations with Moscow, including to cooperate with Russia to fight Islamic State.
However, Trump had also criticized Obama for setting a “red line” threatening force against Assad if he used chemical weapons, only to pull back from ordering air strikes in 2013 when Assad agreed to give up his chemical arsenal.
Trump said this week’s chemical attack “crosses many, many lines”, an allusion to Obama’s threat that was not carried out.
Russian media long portrayed Trump as a figure who would promote closer relations with Moscow. At home, Trump’s opponents have accused him of being too supportive of Putin.
U.S. spy agencies say Moscow intervened with computer hacking to help Trump beat Hillary Clinton in last year’s election, and the FBI is investigating whether Trump campaign figures colluded with Moscow, which the White House denies.