US President Donald Trump said on Thursday he ordered missile strikes against a Syrian airfield from which a deadly chemical weapons attack was launched, declaring he acted in America’s “vital national security interest” against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Sharply escalating the US military role in Syria, two US warships fired dozens of cruise missiles from the eastern Mediterranean Sea against the airbase controlled by Assad’s forces in response to the poison gas attack on Tuesday in a rebel-held area, Reuters reports, citing US officials.
Facing his biggest foreign policy crisis since taking office in January, Trump took the toughest direct US action yet in Syria’s six-year-old civil war, raising the risk of confrontation with Russia and Iran, Assad’s two main military backers.
US officials insisted they informed Russian forces ahead of the missile attacks and that there were no strikes on sections of the base where Russians were present.
But they said the administration did not seek Moscow’s approval.
“Years of previous attempts at changing Assad’s behavior have all failed and failed very dramatically,” Trump said from his Florida resort, Mar-a-Lago, where he was attending a summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Trump ordered the strikes just a day after he pointed the finger at Assad for this week’s chemical attack, which killed at least 70 people, many of them children, in the Syrian town of Khan Sheikhoun. The Syrian government has denied it was behind the attack.
Fifty-nine Tomahawk missiles were launched from the USS Porter and USS Ross around 8:40 p.m. EDT, striking multiple targets – including an airstrip, aircraft and fuel stations – on the Shayrat Air Base, which the Pentagon says was used to store chemical weapons.
“Initial indications are that this strike has severely damaged or destroyed Syrian aircraft and support infrastructure and equipment at Shayrat Airfield, reducing the Syrian government’s ability to deliver chemical weapons,” said Pentagon spokesman Captain Jeff Davis.
Syrian state TV said that “American aggression” had targeted a Syrian military base with “a number of missiles and cited a Syrian military source as saying the strike had “led to losses.”
Trump said: “Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad launched a horrible chemical weapons attack on innocent civilians. … Tonight I ordered a targeted military strike on the airfield in Syria from where the chemical attack was launched.”
“It is in this vital national security interest of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons,” Trump said.
“There can be no dispute that Syria used banned chemical weapons, violated its obligations under the chemical weapons convention and ignored the urging of the UN Security Council,” he added.
Trump appeared to have opted for measured and targeted air attacks instead of a full-blown assault on Assad’s forces and installations.
“We feel the strike itself was proportionate,” said US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
The relatively quick response to the chemical attack came as Trump faced a growing list of global problems, from North Korea and China to Iran and Islamic State, and may have been intended to send a message to friends and foes alike of his resolve to use military force if deemed necessary.
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