The U.S. military launched approximately 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at a Syrian airfield Thursday, President Donald Trump’s first military action since taking office.
The 8:40 p.m. strike launched from destroyers USS Porter and USS Ross in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea came just 24 hour after Trump criticized his predecessors, Barack Obama, for failing to confront President Bashar al-Assad in 2013 after the use of chemical weapons by Syria.
Speaking emotionally from Mar-a-Lago Trump condemned a deadly attack by the Syrian government and said a response was necessary after a chemical attack that killed 86 people, including many 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,” Trump said. “Tonight I ordered an airstrike on the air field in Syria from where the chemical attack was launched.”
Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson were all with Trump at Mar-a-Lago on Thursday.
Tuesday’s suspected chemical weapons attack on the town of Khan Sheikhoun in northern Syria killed 86 civilians, including more than 20 children, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitoring group.
The strike will more than likely change the conversation in Washington and likely overshadow many of the issues that have consumed the city. Instead of debates over repealing Obamacare and Russian interference, conversations will focus on whether chemical gases and whether another strike is warranted.
Trump received support from Republicans, but hesitance from Democrats.
“Assad was warned, repeatedly, by the U.S. and the U.N. that the intentional targeting of innocent men, women and children is intolerable," Ed Royce, R-Ca., House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman, said. “Now Assad has been caught red-handed carrying out another abhorrent chemical attack, and the administration has taken a measured response.”
U.S. Sen Chris Coons, D-Del., a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he was encouraged that the Trump Administration felt compelled to act forcefully, but he also said he was "gravely concerned that the United States is engaging further militarily in Syria without a well-thought-out, comprehensive plan."
Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Ca., said the strike will not hasten an end to the Assad regime, but it may deter its further use of chemical weapons.
"Nevertheless, this missile strike and the military action of our forces already in Syria, have yet to be authorized by Congress," said Schiff, ranking member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, "I will be re-introducing an authorization for use of military force against ISIS and al Qaeda when Congress returns to session. Congress cannot abdicate its responsibility any longer and should vote on any use of force not made in self defense.”
Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis said the U.S. military took "extraordinary measures to avoid civilian casualties.”
"Every precaution was taken to execute this strike with minimal risk to personnel at the airfield," Davis said. "The strike was a proportional response to Assad's heinous act...The strike was intended to deter the regime from using chemical weapons again."
The airfield was targeted because it was used to store chemical weapons, and because U.S. intelligence assessed that aircraft from that field conducted the chemical weapons attack on April 4, Davis said. While the damage was still being assessed on Thursday night, the military said that Syrian aircraft, infrastructure and equipment had been "severely damaged or destroyed.
Russian forces were warned in advance that the strike was coming, the Pentagon said, insisting that "U.S. military planners took precautions to minimize risk to Russian or Syrian personnel located at the airfield."
Russia's deputy to the United Nations, Vladimir Safronkov, warned the U.S. earlier on Thursday that there would be "negative consequences" if it carried out military strikes on Syria in response to the attack.
The risk of escalation is higher than it was in 2013, when the Pentagon first weighed a military response to chemical attacks by Assad's government. The Trump administration now has to consider the presence of Russian troops, which are fighting with Syrian forces and could inadvertently be struck. Also new is the presence of Russian air defense systems which can shoot down U.S. planes.
While the U.S. began military operations in Syria in 2014, it has only targeted Islamic State militants. Thursday evening’s strikes are the first direct military action by the U.S. government against Syrian President President Bashar Assad since the civil war broke out in 2011.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who spoke with Trump on Thursday, said the president had been "consulting seriously" on possible military options in Syria with Mattis and McMaster.
McCain said he and several other Republicans including Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., had recommended that he ground Syrian planes.
“Don’t let those planes fly that are committing war crimes by dropping nerve gas against innocent men and women and children,” he said on a phone call with reporters on Thursday.
The missile strikes on Thursday appeared to be that sort of limited operation, meant to degrade Assad’s government’s military capabilities – especially its capacity to deliver the kind of chemical weapons used in Idlib.
The Turkish Health Ministry on Thursday said that the chemical used in the attack, which left victims choking, convulsing and foaming at the mouth, was most likely the deadly nerve agent sarin. Their analysis was based on autopsies conducted on three victims of the attack by Turkish doctors.
The World Health Organization said Wednesday that some of the victims showed signs “consistent with exposure to organophosphorus chemicals, a category of chemicals that includes nerve agents,” which are banned. A medical team on the scene with Doctors Without Borders also said in a statement that the symptoms they encountered looked like “exposure to a neurotoxic agent such as sarin gas.”
Trump said he had been deeply affected by the images of victims coming out of Syria, especially of young children, and said that the alleged use of chemical weapons “crossed many, many lines, beyond a red line.”
Last week, Tillerson seemed to signal a significant shift in Syria policy when he said the “longer-term status of President Assad will be decided by the Syrian people.” Similarly, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley indicated that Assad’s removal was no longer a priority for the U.S. the way it had been under President Barack Obama, who repeatedly called for Assad to step down.
Tillerson seemed to make a quick turnabout on Thursday, in the aftermath of the chemical attacks.
“Assad’s role in the future is uncertain clearly and with the acts that he has taken, it will seem that there would be no role for him to govern the Syrian people,” he said at a press conference in Palm Beach.
When announcing the airstrike, Trump said Syria “ignores the urging of the UN Security council.” He called all countries to join the United States to end the “scourge of terrorism.”
Trump said years of previous attempts at changing Assad's behavior have all failed “and failed very dramatically,” which has threatened the United States and its allies."
“As long as America stands for justice, then peace and harmony will in the end prevail,” Trump said.