WASHINGTON: President Donald Trump triumphantly declared “Mission Accomplished!” on Saturday following a US-led missile assault on the Syrian regime and warned another attack could follow if Damascus were to unleash more chemical weapons.
The combined US-French-British operation, which saw more than 100 cruise missiles smash into three chemical weapons facilities early Saturday, earned quick scorn from Russia, which pushed for a vote at the UN Security Council condemning the strikes.
Trump and his allies ordered the pre-dawn mission in response to a suspected chemical weapons attack a week ago on the rebel-held town of Douma that left more than 40 people dead.
Both the regime of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and its ally Russia have denied all responsibility for the April 7 attack, and Moscow slammed the “aggressive actions” of the Western coalition, but it has not yet responded militarily.
US Ambassador Nikki Haley warned her UN counterparts that although the mission was designed as a one-off, that did not preclude further action against Assad.
“I spoke to the president this morning and he said: ‘If the Syrian regime uses this poisonous gas again, the United States is locked and loaded,'” Haley said at emergency Security Council talks.
“When our president draws a red line, our president enforces the red line.”
– ‘ Perfectly executed’ –
The sounds of massive explosions rang out across Damascus just before dawn Saturday, ushering in 45 minutes of explosions and the roar of warplanes.
“A perfectly executed strike last night. Thank you to France and the United Kingdom for their wisdom and the power of their fine Military,” Trump tweeted early Saturday.
“Could not have had a better result. Mission Accomplished!”
Trump drew some criticism for his choice of words: former president George W. Bush notoriously stood on an aircraft carrier just a few weeks after the initial Iraq invasion in 2003 in front of a “Mission Accomplished” banner.
“We met our objectives. We hit the sites, the heart of the chem weapons program. So it was mission accomplished,” Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White later said.
The targets included a scientific research facility near Damascus, a chemical weapons storage facility west of the city of Homs, and a third location near Homs that contained both a command post and a chemical weapons equipment storage facility, the US military said.
The facilities hit had however reportedly been evacuated in recent days.
Syrian state media reported only three people injured, while Russia’s defense ministry said there were “no victims” among Syrian civilians and military personnel.
According to US officials, the operation comprised three US destroyers, a French frigate and a US submarine. The vessels were located in the Red Sea, the Gulf and the eastern Mediterranean.
A top Pentagon official, Lieutenant General Kenneth McKenzie, said the action would set back Syria’s chemical weapons program “for years” but he noted a “residual” element remained.
“I’m not going to say that they are going to be unable to continue to conduct a chemical attack in the future,” McKenzie said.
“I suspect, however, they’ll think long and hard about it based on the activities of last night.”
– ‘Crimes of a monster’ –
“The evil and the despicable attack left mothers and fathers, infants and children thrashing in pain and gasping for air,” Trump said as he announced the joint action against Assad’s regime from the White House late Friday, in a primetime televised address
“These are not the actions of a man. They are crimes of a monster instead.”
The strikes were the biggest foreign military action so far against Syria’s regime.
US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis called the strikes a “one-time shot” with no additional military action planned for now.
Assad, who has denied ever using chemical weapons against his opponents, responded to the strikes with a defiant vow.
“This aggression will only make Syria and its people more determined to keep fighting and crushing terrorism in every inch of the country,” he said.
Assad’s key ally Iran also slammed the attack, with supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei describing Western leaders as “criminals.”
The targets appeared to steer well clear of any Russian personnel or equipment in Syria, where Moscow launched a military intervention in support of Assad in 2015.
The Russian military claimed Syrian air defense systems had intercepted 71 Western missiles, though the Pentagon flatly dismissed the claim and said all missiles hit their targets.