Donald Trump warned he is ‘one step away from military clashes with Russia’ after Syria blitz
US president insisted it was time the Assad regime was reined in from its attacks on innocent Syrians
Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump were last night urged to hold emergency talks as growing tensions in the Middle East threatened to explode into war.
The Russian president sent the missile warship Admiral Grigorovich to Syria after the US leader yesterday unleashed 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles on the airfield from where Bashar al-Assad launched a sarin gas attack on his own people.
A British nuclear submarine is patrolling the Mediterranean and Nato forces were on high alert throughout the region.
As the region teetered on the brink, world leaders, including Theresa May, backed the American strikes at al-Shayrat base, but there were calls for talks in a bid to prevent the crisis turning into a wider conflict.
Russia’s Prime Minister Dimitry Medvedev claimed the US missile strike was illegal and warned Mr Trump had been “one step away from military clashes with Russia”.
But the US president insisted it was time the Assad regime was reined in from its barbarous attacks on innocent Syrians.
Tuesday’s gas strike at the city of Khan Sheikhoun killed 86 civilians, including 30 children and 20 women.
Mr Trump said: “Using a deadly nerve agent, Assad choked out the life of innocent men, women and children. It was a slow and brutal death for so many, even beautiful babies were cruelly murdered in this very barbaric attack. No child of God should ever suffer such horror.
“I ordered a targeted military strike on the airbase in Syria from where the chemical attack was launched. There can be no dispute that Syria used banned chemical weapons and ignored the urging of the UN Security Council.
“Years of previous attempts at changing Assad’s behaviour have all faileda result, the refugee crisis deepens, and the region continues to destabilise, threatening the United States and its allies.
“I call on all civilised nations to join us in seeking to end the slaughter and bloodshed in Syria.”
Downing Street said Mrs May was kept “fully informed” of the US airstrike, which killed nine people and destroyed nine fighter jets as well as several buildings.
A spokesman added: “The Government fully supports the action, which we believe was an appropriate response to the barbaric chemical weapons attack launched by the Syrian regime, and is intended to deter further attacks.”
It first appeared No 10 had no idea the raid was about to happen when officials insisted on Wednesday “nobody is talking about that”.
But Defence Secretary Sir Michael Fallon yesterday insisted his US counterpart James “Mad Dog” Mattis told him about it on Thursday night.
He added: “He called to advise us of the president’s decision and to give us notice of the attack.”
Mr Fallon revealed Britain took no part in the raid but refused to confirm it would have joined in if asked.
He added: “The United States made it clear that this was to be a United States operation.”
Lib Dem leader Tim Farron also supported the US attack. But Labour chief Jeremy Corbyn warned the action “risks escalating the war in Syria still further”. Britain’s Nato allies, including Germany, France and Canada, backed Mr Trump’s raid.
In a joint statement, Angela Merkel and Francois Hollande said Assad “bears full responsibility” for the attack following his use of nerve gas against his own people.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault added: “Here we have an action that is a condemnation of what this criminal regime is doing.”
The EU also supported the raid. President Donald Tusk tweeted: “US strikes show needed resolve against barbaric chemical attacks.
“EU will work with the US to end brutality in Syria.”
Western allies in the Middle East including Saudi Arabia and the UAE hailed the strike as a “courageous decision”. Turkey and Israel also praised it. Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said it was a “positive” first step but demanded an escalation against Syria from the West.
He added: “We find it a positive and concrete step taken against the war crimes of the Assad regime. Is it enough? I don’t find it enough.
“It is time to take serious steps for the protection of innocent Syrian people.” The airstrike was the first direct US assault on Assad’s government in the six years of a civil war that has killed as many as 400,000 and displaced millions of people.
White House officials insisted the raid was a “one-off” intended to deter future chemical weapons attacks, and not an escalation of the American role in Syria. But the swift action is thought also to be a big warning to Russia, as well as to other countries such as North Korea, China and Iran to steer clear of gas warfare.
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson added: “This clearly indicates the president is willing to take decisive action when called for. I would not in any way attempt to extrapolate that to a change in our policy or our posture relative to our military activities in Syria today. There has been no change in that status.”
But Jane’s analyst Reed Foster said while the airstrike will further weaken the Syrian air force’s capabilities, he warned “it will not significantly diminish the ability of the Assad regime to conduct further chemical weapons attacks”.
Russian Defence Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov condemned the raid, insisting the gas attacks were as a result of a direct hit on a rebel base hiding chemicals.
The Kremlin said: “President Putin views the US strikes as aggression against a sovereign state in violation of the norms of international law and on a made-up pretext. This step by Washington will inflict major damage on US-Russia ties, which are already in a lamentable state.” Only Iran and terror group Hizbollah supported Assad after the attack. Tehran’s foreign ministry spokesman Bahrem Qasemi said: “Such measures will strengthen terrorists in Syria.”
The American raid, with missiles fired from destroyers USS Porter and USS Ross in the Mediterranean, took place in the early hours and under the cover of darkness and with little warning. Although Russia was tipped off before the missiles hit.
Moscow has suspended communication with US forces designed to stop planes colliding over Syria.
The RAF temporarily halted operations in the country amid fears of a mid-air crash.
Russia and the US have been co-operating over the safe use of airspace in Syria since 2015 in a protocol that involves military planners sending daily reports to each other about areas they intend to operate in. The battered airfield, near Homs, has also been used by Putin’s attack helicopters in support of ground operations. But none of Putin’s aircraft were there when it was hit.
Assad’s military strength is bolstered by Russian S-300 and S-400 surface-to-air missile systems, which threaten US manned strike aircraft on missions against IS.
Britain has more than 16 Tornado and Typhoon fighter aircraft supporting Operation Shader, from its base in Cyprus, as well as Rivet Joint and Sentinel surveillance planes.
- Oil prices yesterday leapt after the US air strikes. Brent crude rose 2% to more than $56 a barrel in a knee-jerk reaction to the attacks. It could put up the price of petrol and diesel.