» News » US launches missile strike against Syria

US launches missile strike against Syria

By Lalit K Jha
Last updated on: April 07, 2017 22:43 IST
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The Trump-led administration has launched 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at a Syrian government airbase in response to a suspected chemical weapons attack on a rebel-held town.

IMAGE: The US launched 59 Tomahawk missiles from the Eastern Mediterranean. Photograph courtesy: US Department of Defense

The United States on Friday launched a massive military strike on a Syrian air base in retaliation to a “barbaric” chemical attack on civilians allegedly by embattled President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and asked all 'civilised' countries to join it to end the killing of innocent people.

On President Donald Trump’s orders, US warships in the Mediterranean Sea launched 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at the Shayrat air base, in Homs governorate, where the warplanes that carried out the chemical attacks are based, US officials said.

The move signals a dramatic shift in Trump’s position on whether the US should take military action against Assad’s regime. Trump, during his campaign for president, had opposed any such move.

The missiles from two US warships hit at 3:45 am (local time) and targeted the base’s airstrips, hangars, control tower and ammunition areas.  

IMAGE: A satellite view of the Shayrat airfield. The Shayrat airbase had been used to store chemical weapons used by the regime until 2013, when a deal was struck with the US and Russia to remove its declared arsenal. Photograph courtesy: Pentagon 

Speaking from his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, Trump said he ordered targeted missile strikes at the Syrian airfield.

A military official quoted on Syrian TV said the US action caused material damage.

Describing the chemical attack on innocent civilians as “horrible”, Trump said President Assad took the lives of helpless 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,” he said.

“It is in vital national security interest of the United States to prevent and deter use of deadly chemical weapons,” Trump told reporters.

The military action comes after Tuesday’s deadly chemical attack that officials said used chlorine mixed with a nerve agent, killing 86 people, including 27 children, in the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhun in northwestern Syria.

This is the first direct military action the US has taken against the regime of Assad in Syria’s six-year civil war and represents a substantial escalation of the US military campaign in the region.

However, it was reported that the US strike also killed nine civilians, including four children, Syrian state news agency SANA reported.

The news agency said five of the civilians, among them three children, were killed in the village of Shayrat just outside the base of the same name.

‘An American missile also hit the village of Al-Hamrat, which killed four civilians including a child,’ it said.

‘Another seven civilians were wounded when a missile hit homes in Al-Manzul, four kilometres away from the Shayrat air base,’ it added.

IMAGE: US President Donald Trump delivers an statement about missile strikes on a Syrian airbase, at his Mar-a-Lago estate in West Palm Beach, Florida. Photograph: Carlos Barria/Reuters

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who is set to visit Moscow next week, said Russia 'failed in its responsibility' to deliver on a 2013 commitment to secure Syria’s chemical weapons.

“Clearly Russia has failed in its responsibility. Either Russia has been complicit or either Russia has been simply incompetent in its ability to deliver on its end of that agreement,” Tillerson told reporters.

He said that the US has a very 'high level of confidence' that the chemical attacks were carried out under the direction of Assad’s regime.

“We have very high confidence that the attacks involved the use of sarin nerve gas,” he said.

Russia, who has provided military support for Bashar al-Assad’s government since September 2015, said that the air strikes could undermine efforts to fight against terrorism in Syria while Israel and Syrian rebels welcomed the attack. 

Pentagon Press Secretary Captain Jeff Davis said Russian forces were notified in advance of the strike using the established deconfliction line. 

“US military planners took precautions to minimise risk to Russian or Syrian personnel located at the airfield,” he said.     

IMAGE: The airstrike has been welcomed by American lawmakers, saying the action was sending out an important message. Photograph: US Department of Defense

The Pentagon said the missile strike that targeted Shayrat Airfield was a proportional response to Assad’s heinous act.

“The strike was a proportional response to Assad’s heinous act. Shayrat Airfield was used to store chemical weapons and Syrian air forces. The US intelligence community assesses that aircraft from Shayrat conducted the chemical weapons attack on April 4,” Davis said.

The strike was intended to deter the regime from using chemical weapons again, he said.

“Russian forces were notified in advance of the strike using the established deconfliction line. US military planners took precautions to minimise risk to Russian or Syrian personnel located at the airfield,” Davis said.

The deaths of civilians in Syria sparked international outrage with many pointing the finger at the government of President Assad.

The US military strike was widely hailed by the world community with nations like the United Kingdom and Israel backing it as a ‘just’ response to the chemical attack by President Bashar Al-Assad's regime, but Russia and Iran strongly condemned the unilateral move.

The UK government said it ‘fully supports’ the US missile strike.

A 10 Downing Street spokesperson said, “Overnight, the US has taken military action against the Syrian regime, targeting the airfield in Shayrut which was used to launch the chemical weapons attack earlier this week.

“The UK government fully supports the US 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.”

UK defence secretary Michael Fallon told the BBC that the UK had been in ‘close contact’ with the US over the last few days and that British Prime Minister Theresa May had been ‘informed throughout’.

He said that the UK government had not been asked to take part in the strike.

China condemned the deadly chemical weapons attack in Syria.

“We condemn the recent chemical attack in Syria, and we support the independent and comprehensive investigation conducted by the relevant UN agencies into ... the use or suspected use of chemical weapons so as to reach a conclusion that stands the test of history and facts on the basis of solid evidence,” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said.

“We have noted the latest developments. What is urgent now is to prevent the situation from deteriorating and uphold the hard-won political process to settle the Syrian issue,” she said, without mentioning the US military strike which came as China’s President Xi Jinping met his American counterpart Donald Trump in Florida.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he supports the ‘strong and clear message’ sent by the US strike.

‘In both word and action, President (Donald) Trump sent a strong and clear message today that the use and spread of chemical weapons will not be tolerated,’ a statement from Netanyahu’s office said.

‘Israel fully supports President Trump's decision and hopes that this message of resolve in the face of the Assad regime’s horrific actions will resonate not only in Damascus, but in Tehran, Pyongyang and elsewhere.’

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said, “The Australian government strongly supports the swift and just response of the United States.”

“This was a calibrated, proportionate and targeted response,” Turnbull said, adding that the US had informed Australia before the strike.

He said Australia was not involved in the strike, but remained fully committed as a coalition partner to ‘ongoing military operations in Iraq and Syria’.

European Union President Donald Tusk said the US missile strikes demonstrated ‘needed resolve’ against chemical attacks.

‘US strikes show needed resolve against barbaric chemical attacks,’ tweeted Tusk, who represents the 28 EU member states, adding the bloc will work with the US to ‘end brutality’ in Syria.

Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, the EU executive, expressed his support for the US decision.

‘President Juncker has been unequivocal in his condemnation of the use of chemical weapons,’ a Commission statement said.

‘The repeated use of such weapons must be answered. He understands efforts to deter further attacks,’ it said.

Juncker made ‘a clear distinction’ between US missile strikes on a military base and the use of ‘chemical weapons against civilians’.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said his country ‘fully supports’ the US action.

‘Canada fully supports the United States’ limited and focused action to degrade the Assad regime’s ability to launch chemical weapons attacks against innocent civilians, including many children,’ he said in a statement.

‘President Assad’s use of chemical weapons and the crimes the Syrian regime has committed against its own people cannot be ignored,’ he added. ‘These gruesome attacks cannot be permitted to continue operating with impunity.’

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urged restraint and the search for a political solution in Syria.

‘Mindful of the risk of escalation, I appeal for restraint to avoid any acts that could deepen the suffering of the Syrian people,’ he said in a statement. ‘There is no other way to solve the conflict than through a political solution.’

Meanwhile, the UN Security Council met in an emergency session on Friday following the US missile strikes.

France and Britain called for a renewed push for political negotiations to end the six-year war in Syria.

Bolivian Ambassador Sacha Lorenti said the United States had behaved like ‘investigator, attorney, judge and executioner’ in Syria.

“This is not what international law is all about,” he told reporters ahead of the meeting.

Russia, one of the closest allies of the regime of Assad, said it considers the US strike as ‘aggression against a sovereign state’ which will further harm US-Russia ties.

“President Putin considers American strikes on Syria aggression against a sovereign state in violation of international norms, and under an invented pretext,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.

“The Syrian army does not have any chemical weapon stockpiles,” Peskov said.

“The fact of destruction of all chemical weapon stockpiles of the Syrian armed forces was recorded and confirmed by the (Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons).”

“This step by Washington inflicts considerable damage to US-Russia relations, which are already in a lamentable state,” Peskov added.

Russia also called for an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council to discuss the US missile strikes.

Iran also ‘strongly condemned’ the military strike.

“We condemn all unilateral military action and the missile strike by US warships against Shayrat airbase under the pretext of Tuesday’s suspected attack on Khan Sheikhun,” foreign ministry spokesman Bahram Ghassemi told the Fars news agency.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande issued a joint statement in response to the US air strike and blamed Assad for the US action.

‘President Assad alone bears the responsibility for this development. His repeated use of chemical weapons and his crimes against his own people demand sanctions which France and Germany already asked for in the summer of 2013 after the massacre at Ghouta,’ they said.

Italy gave its support to the US action, saying it was a suitable response to Syrian aggression and a deterrent against the use of chemical weapons by its leader.

European Union President Donald Tusk said the US missile strikes demonstrated ‘needed resolve’ against chemical attacks.

The bloc will work with the US to ‘end brutality’ in Syria, he said.

North Atlantic Treaty Organisation head Jens Stoltenberg blamed Syria for the US missile strikes.

“Any use of chemical weapons is unacceptable, cannot go unanswered, and those responsible must be held accountable,” he said.

Saudi Arabia said it ‘fully supports’ US strikes, terming it a ‘courageous decision’ by Trump in response to the use of chemical weapons against civilians.

‘A responsible source at the foreign ministry expressed the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s full support for the American military operations on military targets in Syria, which came as a response to the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons against innocent civilians,’ a statement carried by state news agency SPA said.

Turkey’s foreign ministry said it viewed US missile strikes against a Syrian air base ‘extremely positively’ and added that Turkey would fully support steps that would ensure accountability for the Syrian regime.

Meanwhile, Turkish President Recap Tayyip Erdogan’s spokesman called for the creation of a no-fly zone and safe zones within Syria.

Assad's office, however, termed the strike as ‘foolish and irresponsible’.

‘What America did is nothing but foolish and irresponsible behaviour, which only reveals its short-sightedness and political and military blindness to reality,’ a statement said.

Assad’s office said the government would redouble its efforts against rebel groups after the US strike.

‘This aggression has increased Syria’s determination to strike these terrorist agents, to continue crushing them and to speed up the pace of work on this, wherever they are on Syrian territory,’ it said.

‘The disgraceful act of targeting a sovereign state’s airport demonstrates once again that different administrations do not change deeper policies.’

The Syrian army on Tuesday denied that it had used chemical weapons against Khan Sheikhun. 

Tulsi Gabbard, the first Hindu lawmaker in the US Congress described the massive American military strike as ‘reckless’ and ‘short-sighted’ amid bipartisan support from the House of Representatives to President Trump’s punitive action.

‘It angers and saddens me that President Trump has taken the advice of war hawks and escalated our illegal regime change war to overthrow the Syrian government,’ Gabbard, the Democratic Congresswoman from Hawaii, said in a statement.

Gabbard is an Iraq war veteran and a member of the powerful House Foreign Relations Committee.

In January Gabbard travelled to Syria to meet Assad, thus making her perhaps the only senior US official to meet the Syrian leader.

‘This escalation is short-sighted and will lead to more dead civilians, more refugees, the strengthening of al-Qaeda and other terrorists, and a possible nuclear war between the US and Russia,’ she said.

‘This administration has acted recklessly without care or consideration of the dire consequences of the US attack on Syria without waiting for the collection of evidence from the scene of the chemical poisoning,’ Gabbard said.

‘If President Assad is indeed guilty of this horrible chemical attack on innocent civilians, I will be the first to call for his prosecution and execution by the International Criminal Court.’ she said.

‘However, because of our attack on Syria, this investigation may now not even be possible. And without such evidence, a successful prosecution will be much harder,’ Gabbard, who is also a co-chair of the Congressional India Caucus said.

Gabbard appeared to be the lone voice in opposing the Trump’s decision to carry out missile strikes against the Syrian regime.

Trump appeared to have bipartisan support to his military decision, which came in less than 100 days of him taking over the office of presidency.

What exactly are Tomahawk missiles?  

The weapon has been a major part of the American military arsenal since the early 1990s and has been used in many high-profile operations, including the first Gulf War to the fight against Islamic State and conflict in Yemen.

Here are its most prominent features --

>> Range of up to 2,500 kilometres

>> Typically carry a 450 kg warhead

>> Recent estimates have put the cost of a single Tomahawk at US$1.3 million or more

>> Manufacturer Raytheon says the "highly accurate" weapon can be used "to conduct precise strikes on high-value targets with minimal collateral damage"



 -- Video courtesy: US Department of Defence

Trump's full statement

 “My fellow Americans,

On Tuesday, Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad launched a horrible chemical weapons attack on innocent civilians using a deadly nerve agent.

Assad choked out the lives 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.

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.

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.

Years of previous attempts at changing Assad’s behaviour have all failed and failed very dramatically.

As a result the refugee crisis continues to deepen and the region continues to destabilise, threatening the United States and its allies.

Tonight I call on all civilised nations to join us in seeking to end the slaughter and bloodshed in Syria, and also to end terrorism of all kinds and all types.

We ask for god’s wisdom as we face the challenge of our very troubled world.

We pray for the lives of the wounded and for the souls of those who have passed.

And we hope that as long as America stands for justice that peace and harmony will in the end prevail.

Goodnight and god bless America and the entire world. Thank you.” 

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Lalit K Jha
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