Thursday’s military action came after a whirlwind week in which the US’s policy toward Syria changed several times.
April 7, 2017
WASHINGTON — The US military launched strikes inside Syria Thursday in retaliation for the regime’s suspected chemical weapons attack earlier this week, marking the first US strikes targeting the Syrian government since the country’s civil war erupted six years ago.
The US military said Thursday evening it had launched 59 Tomahawk land attack missiles targeting the Al-Shayrat air base in Homs, from where US radar captured Syrian planes carrying deadly chemical weapons taking off, attacking civilians, and returning Tuesday morning. Using two US Navy destroyers, the USS Ross and USS Porter, the attack took place over a two-minute period around 8:40 p.m. ET, or 3:40 a.m. local time, Pentagon spokesman Navy Capt Jeff Davis told reporters. The use of warships — and not manned aircraft — minimized the risk to US air personnel.
Planes, runways, hardened aircraft hangars, ammunition supply bunkers, radar, and gas lines were targeted, Davis said. The US was conducting a battlefield assessment to determine the extent of the damage that could come as early as Friday.
Davis said Russians were at the base at the time, and that there were multiple conversations with the Russians throughout the day on Thursday leading up to the strikes. He did not describe the details of those conversations other than to say they took place through existing deconfliction channels, created to make sure there were no accidents between the two nations as they launched strikes for opposing sides of the war.
The US took “extraordinary precautions” to avoid hitting areas where the Russian personnel were on the base, he said. He called the strikes a “proportional response” to Syrian use of chemical weapons. “The things we targeted are what make the base operable,” he said.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov confirmed there had been no information about Russian casualties in the strikes. “By all accounts, there weren’t any,” he said Friday morning.
A short while later, Russia’s Defense Ministry said only 23 of the 59 missiles reached the air base and the attack was of “low efficiency,” according to the state-run Interfax news agency.
Russia Defense Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said Friday that Russia would help Syria strengthen its air defenses, adding that damage done to the base was not catastrophic, according to the AP. He said 23 of the 59 missiles reached the base, they left the runway undamaged, and they destroyed six MiG fighter jets that were undergoing repairs while leaving other warplanes undamaged.
Given fears that the more-than-1,000 US personnel in Syria could be targeted in response to the strikes, Davis said, “We already have precautionary measures for our personnel.”
Davis said he did not know what kind of Syrian aircraft was destroyed or how many, saying the US will likely have a better idea on Friday.
President Trump, in brief remarks after the strike campaign was over, said the strikes were “in this vital national security interest of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons.”
Defense officials told BuzzFeed News there would be no more strikes on Thursday, and one US official said there was no indication of plans for more: “We are done until another decision is made.” US officials had signaled they hoped to launch a strike campaign that made clear the use of chemical weapons is unacceptable but stopped short of further escalation. The US military said that though the strikes ended Thursday, that would not mean the end of the effects of the campaign — the regime, the opposition, Russia, Iran, and US allies may all have a response.
Trump, who once vowed to not get involved in Syria’s civil war, ordered the strikes just 77 days into his term.
The lightning-fast pace of the decision to strike raised immediate questions about who inside the Trump administration was consulted before a decision of such magnitude.
The White House relied heavily on the Pentagon to draw up the military plans, and a handful of officials at the State Department were privy to the timing of the attack. But many were not, and key US allies expressed ignorance earlier on Thursday about the imminent nature of the war plans, assuming the US would first go to the UN Security Council.
“I had no idea this was going to happen so quickly,” one US diplomat told BuzzFeed News.
The White House did, however, notify Israel and Jordan ahead of the attack, an Israeli defense official said.
“There need to be lines drawn as to what is accepted and what is not. Assad needs to understand what those lines are,” the official told BuzzFeed News. “It is good for the world — especially our part of the world — to see the US president take decisive action.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office released a statement Friday praising the strikes, saying Trump sent a strong message that the use and distribution of chemical weapons won’t be tolerated.
The UK and Australia, both US allies, are also among those nations to express support for the strikes.
French President François Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel issued a joint statement condemning the chemical attack, saying Assad bears “full responsibility” for developments overnight.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, however, condemned the US strikes in a press statement, saying they dealt a “serious blow” to already “poor” US–Russia relations.
Putin’s statement described the strikes as “an act of aggression against a sovereign state delivered in violation of international law under a far-fetched pretext. The Syrian Army has no chemical weapons.”