U.S. Launches Cruise Missiles at Syrian Air Base in Response to Chemical Attack
Strikes represent first time a U.S. military operation deliberately targeted the regime of President Bashar al-Assad
WASHINGTON—The U.S. military launched dozens of Tomahawk cruise missiles against a Syrian air base Friday, responding to mounting calls for a display of force in the wake of this week’s suspected chemical-weapons attack in Syria.
The strikes represented the first time a U.S. military operation deliberately targeted the regime of President Bashar al-Assad and came a day after U.S. President Donald Trump said the chemical attack in Idlib province earlier this week had changed his thinking on Syria and Mr. Assad.
Speaking inside his Mar-a-Lago resort, President Trump said he ordered targeted missile strikes at a Syrian airfield as a response to the “barbaric” chemical weapons attack, saying they were in the interest of U.S. national security to prevent and deter the use and spread of such weapons. The Assad regime, Mr. Trump said, “choked out the lives of helpless” people in Syria.
“It is in the vital national security interest of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons,” Mr. Trump said. “There can be no dispute that Syria used banned chemical weapons.”
The U.S. strikes targeted the Shayrat Airfield near Homs, Syria, and were meant to cripple the base’s airfield and other infrastructure, preventing the regime from using the facility or fueling its planes. But the strikes also were intended as a signal—a limited U.S. strike to indicate that the chemical attack by Mr. Assad was unacceptable to the U.S.
The air base was thought by U.S. officials to be connected to the chemical attack. A U.S. military official said earlier Thursday that the U.S. had intelligence that traced the attack to a particular plane, and therefore might have sought to target the plane’s air base.
Russia, which had troops on the targeted air base, was warned in advance of the U.S. strike and the military took pains to target only the parts of the base where the Russians weren’t located, a military official said.
Asian stock markets erased their early gains on news of the airstrikes, as investors looked for lower-risk places to park their cash. Safe-haven assets like the Japanese yen and gold gained, while oil prices jumped on concerns that the U.S. military action could disrupt production in the Middle East.
The Nikkei Stock Average was down 0.1%, after opening up 0.6%. The yen rose 0.6% against the U.S. dollar in the minutes after the strikes were announced. London spot gold prices spiked to their highest level since November, and Brent crude, the global oil benchmark, was up 1.4% at $55.66 a barrel.
More than 50 Tomahawk missiles were launched from two American destroyers, the USS Porter and the USS Ross, both in the Mediterranean Sea, the Pentagon said. The cruise missiles struck aircraft, a runway, fuel pumps and other infrastructure, military officials said.
The pro-regime media outlet Al Masdar News on Friday said the attack caused significant damage to the air base and multiple casualties.
The attacks came as Mr. Trump was hosting Chinese President Xi Jinping at his Florida resort, and planned a full day of meetings Friday with Chinese official focusing on economics, trade and security issues including North Korea’s nuclear program.
In Washington, senior Defense Department staff and other top officers were meeting late Thursday in the National Military Command Center in the Pentagon basement regarding the military operation.
U.S. lawmakers had urged Mr. Trump to strike the Assad regime. There is a growing consensus that the regime used banned chemical weapons in the attack, which killed at least 85 people, including 27 children, and injured about 550.
The strike drew praise from lawmakers, who drew a contrast to former President Barack Obama’s decision to cancel a planned airstrike in 2013 in response to a similar chemical attack. That strike was called off after the U.S. and Russia agreed on a deal to dismantle Syria’s chemical weapons program.
“Unlike the previous administration, President Trump confronted a pivotal moment in Syria and took action,” Sens. John McCain (R., Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.) said in a joint statement.
The two said that the U.S. needed a “new, comprehensive strategy” and that the first such step “must be to take Assad’s air force—which is responsible not just for the latest chemical weapons attack, but countless atrocities against the Syrian people—completely out of the fight.”
The United Nations Security Council on Thursday evening canceled a planned vote on a resolution backed by the U.S. and European allies condemning the attack and calling for a full U.N. investigation.
Diplomats said the U.S. and Russia exchanged heated words with neither side compromising on their views of what occurred on Tuesday in Syria. The meeting concluded without a concession and with no scheduled vote planned for a resolution.
Planning for a possible military strike accelerated after Mr. Trump said Wednesday the suspected Syrian regime strike went “beyond a red line” for him, Pentagon officials said.
U.S. defense officials had said that they have little doubt that the attack was carried out by Mr. Assad’s air force.
Pentagon officials said that radar imagery showed Syrian bombers carrying out a strike on the village of Khan Sheikhoun in northwestern Syria, and added that the victims were killed by chemical weapons. The strike, Pentagon officials said, hit a hospital used by al Qaeda-linked militants, not a rebel chemical depot, as Russia has contended.
“The case is pretty concrete,” one U.S. military official said Thursday.
The Turkish health ministry said Thursday that autopsy results of three victims of Tuesday’s attack suggest the banned chemical agent sarin was the cause of death.
Syria’s Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem reiterated his government’s claim that the Syrian army has never used chemical weapons in the country. He repeated accusations that extremist groups fighting the government possessed such banned weapons.
Graphic images and video of dead and dying Syrian children hit by the strike galvanized world anger and triggered a swift policy reversal from the Trump administration, which indicated last week that it wasn’t pushing for the Syrian leader’s removal.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has been more explicit than Mr. Trump in calling for Mr. Assad’s removal, saying the U.S. would be working with international partners on a transition plan.
“With the acts that he has taken, there would be no role for him to govern the Syrian people,” Mr. Tillerson said.
The U.S. military already had plans for striking the Assad regime that it can use as a template for hitting Syria, U.S. officials said. In 2013, the Pentagon crafted plans to hit Mr. Assad’s chemical weapons storage sites after the Syrian regime used sarin gas in a strike near Damascus, killing 1,400 people, according to U.S. estimates.
One big concern for the U.S. military is the potential for a backlash from a U.S. strike on Mr. Assad for American forces operating in Syria. The U.S. has been sending more forces into northern Syria as part of an intensifying campaign against Islamic State.
Another major complication is Moscow, which is aiding Mr. Assad. Russia has created a sophisticated air defense system for the Syrian regime. Russian pilots and soldiers work side by side with their Syrian counterparts. President Vladimir Putin, during a telephone conversation with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, criticized what the Kremlin called “baseless” accusations against the Syrian leader.
“There are a lot of things you have to consider,” a U.S. military official said.