By Steve Holland and Tom Perry
WASHINGTON/BEIRUT - U.S., British and French forces struck Syria with more than 100 missiles on Saturday in the first coordinated Western strikes against the Damascus government, targeting what they called chemical weapons sites in retaliation for a poison gas attack.
U.S. President Donald Trump announced the military action from the White House, saying the three allies had “marshaled their righteous power against barbarism and brutality”.
As he spoke, explosions rocked Damascus.
The bombing represents a major escalation putting the West in direct confrontation with Assad’s superpower ally Russia, but is unlikely to alter the course of a multi-sided war which has killed at least half a million people in the past seven years.
That in turn raises the question of where Western countries go from here, after a volley of strikes denounced by Damascus and Moscow as both reckless and pointless.
By morning, the Western countries said their bombing was over for now. Syria released video of President Bashar al-Assad, whose Russian- and Iranian-backed forces have already driven his enemies from Syria’s major towns and cities, arriving at work as usual, with the caption “morning of resilience”.
British Prime Minister Theresa May described the strike as “limited and targeted”. She said she had authorized the British action after intelligence indicated Assad’s government was responsible for the attack using chemical weapons in the Damascus suburb of Douma a week ago.
French President Emmanuel Macron said the strikes had been limited so far to Syria’s chemical weapons facilities.
With more than 100 missiles fired from ships and manned aircraft, the allies struck three of Syria’s main chemical weapons facilities, U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Joseph Dunford said.
The targets included a Syrian center in the greater Damascus area for the research, development, production and testing of chemical and biological weaponry as well as a chemical weapons storage facility near the city of Homs. A third target, also near Homs, contained both a chemical weapons equipment storage facility and a command post.
Mattis called the strikes a “one time shot”, although Trump raised the prospect of further strikes if Assad’s government again used chemical weapons.
“We are prepared to sustain this response until the Syrian regime stops its use of prohibited chemical agents,” the U.S. president said in a televised address.
The Syrian conflict pits a complex myriad of parties against each other, with Russia and Iran giving Assad military and political help that has largely proven decisive over the past three years in crushing any rebel threat to topple him. Fractured opposition forces have had varying levels of support from the West, Arab states and Turkey.
The United States, Britain and France have all bombed the Islamic State group in Syria for years and had troops on the ground to fight them, but refrained from targeting Assad’s government apart from a volley of U.S. missiles last year.
Although the Western countries have all said for seven years that Assad must leave power, they held back in the past from striking his government with no wider strategy to defeat him.
Assad’s government and allies responded outwardly with fury, although there were also clear suggestions that they considered the attack a one-off, unlikely to harm Assad.
A senior official in a regional alliance that backs Damascus told Reuters the Syrian government and its allies had “absorbed” the attack. The sites that were targeted had been evacuated days ago thanks to a warning from Russia, the official said.
“If it is finished, and there is no second round, it will be considered limited,” the official said.
Russia’s ambassador to the United States, Anatoly Antonov, said on Twitter: “Again, we are being threatened. We warned that such actions will not be left without consequences.”
Syrian state media called the attack a “flagrant violation of international law.” An official in Iran’s Revolutionary Guards said it would cause consequences that were against U.S. interests.
French Defence Minister Florence Parly said the Russians “were warned beforehand” to avoid inadvertant escalation.
“ABSORBED THE STRIKE”
At least six loud explosions were heard in Damascus and smoke was seen rising over the city, a Reuters witness said. A second witness said the Barzah district of Damascus had been hit in the strikes. Barzah is the location of a major Syrian scientific research center.
Iran’s Foreign Ministry condemned the U.S.-led attacks and said Washington and its allies would bear responsibility for the consequences in the region and beyond, state media reported.
State-controlled Syrian TV said Syrian air defenses shot down 13 missiles fired in the attack. The Russian defense ministry said none of the rockets launched had entered zones where Russian air defense systems are protecting military facilities in Tartus and Hmeimim.
The combined U.S., British and French assault appeared more intense than a similar strike Trump ordered almost exactly a year ago against a Syrian air base in retaliation for an earlier chemical weapons attack that Washington attributed to Assad.
Mattis said the United States conducted the air strikes with conclusive evidence that chlorine gas was used in the April 7 attack in Syria. Evidence that the nerve agent sarin also was used was inconclusive, he said.
Allegations of Assad’s chlorine use are frequent in Syria’s conflict, raising questions about whether Washington had lowered the threshold for military action in Syria by deciding to strike after a chlorine attack. Syria agreed in 2013 to give up its chemical weapons. It is still permitted to have chlorine for civilian use, although its use as a weapon is banned.
Mattis, who U.S. officials said had earlier warned in internal debates that too large an attack would risk confrontation with Russia, described the strikes as a one-off to dissuade Assad from “doing this again”.
But a U.S. official familiar with the military planning said there could be more air strikes if the intelligence indicates Assad has not stopped making, importing, storing or using chemical weapons including chlorine. The official said this could require a more sustained U.S. air and naval presence in the region, as well as more surveillance.
Trump has been leery of U.S. military involvement in the Middle East, and is eager to withdraw roughly 2,000 troops in Syria taking part in the campaign against Islamic State.
“America does not seek an indefinite presence in Syria, under no circumstances,” Trump said in his address. “The purpose of our actions tonight is to establish a strong deterrent against the production, spread and use of chemical weapons.”
The U.S. president, who has tried to build good relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin, had sharply critical words for Russia and Iran over their support of Assad.
“To Iran and to Russia, I ask, what kind of a nation wants to be associated with the mass murder of innocent men, women and children?” Trump said.
Last year, the United States fired 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles from the guided missile destroyers USS Porter and the USS Ross that struck the Shayrat air base.
At the time, the Pentagon said that a fifth of Syria’s operational aircraft were either damaged or destroyed.