The U.S. military launched 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at a Syrian airfield on Thursday, President Donald Trump’s first major military action since taking office.
The strike, which hit a Syrian airfield in Homs province at 4:40 a.m. local time Friday (8:40 p.m. EDT Thursday), was launched from the destroyers USS Porter and USS Ross in the eastern Mediterranean, just 24 hours after Trump criticized his predecessor, Barack Obama, for failing to confront President Bashar Assad in 2013 after another use of chemical weapons attributed to the Syrian government.
Pentagon officials said the U.S. had notified Russia in advance of the attack and had taken pains to avoid Russian casualties. But Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made it clear that the U.S. blamed Russia for failing to rein in Assad as required by a U.S.-Russia agreement that was to have led to Syria’s destruction of its chemical weapons arsenal.
“Russia has failed in its responsibility,” Tillerson told reporters in Florida. “Either Russia has been complicit or Russia has been simply incompetent in its ability to deliver on its end of that agreement.”
Speaking emotionally from his Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida, Trump condemned Tuesday’s deadly chemical attack on the town of Khan Sheikhoun by the Syrian government that killed at least 86 people, including at least 30 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 Tillerson were with Trump at Mar-a-Lago on Thursday when the strikes were launched.
The strike will more than likely change the conversation in Washington, overshadowing many of the issues that have consumed the city and the Trump administration since Trump’s Jan. 20 swearing in.
The failed effort to repeal Obamacare, the court moves against Trump’s travel ban, the FBI and congressional investigations into whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russian interference in the election, Trump’s historically low approval ratings, all were likely to take a backseat to the Syrian attacks.
In a presidency where Trump has often been accused of trying to change the subject with a new tweet or announcement to distract from the latest controversy, the Syrian airstrikes offered a new opportunity for credit or criticism.
Trump received support from Republicans, but Democrats were hesitant to back the president.
“Assad was warned, repeatedly, by the U.S. and the U.N. that the intentional targeting of innocent men, women and children is intolerable,” said Ed Royce, the California Republican who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “Now Assad has been caught red-handed carrying out another abhorrent chemical attack, and the administration has taken a measured response.”
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said Assad should know that when he commits despicable atrocities he will pay a price. But he said Trump needed to include Congress in the conversation.
“It is incumbent on the Trump administration to come up with a strategy and consult with Congress before implementing it,” Schumer said.
Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., 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, the senior Democrat on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. “I will be re-introducing an authorization for use of military force against ISIS and al Qaida 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.”
Jonathan Schanzer, senior vice president at Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said it would be “wrong to suggest that this strike was carried out in haste.”
“While the Trump administration may be new, the Pentagon has been collecting intelligence and building a bank of targets in Syria,” Schanzer said. “There are undoubtedly dozens of similar targets at their disposal. This strike was apparently a pinpoint strike against the very airfield from which the chemical weapons attack was launched. But it was undoubtedly well known to war planners before tonight.”
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 Tuesday’s chemical weapons attack, Davis said. While an assessment was still being made of the destruction, the Pentagon said that Syrian aircraft, infrastructure and equipment had been “severely damaged or destroyed.”
Russian forces were warned in advance of the strike, 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 that can shoot down U.S. planes.
While the U.S. began military operations in Syria in 2014, until Thursday’s strikes it had targeted only Islamic State militants and groups loyal to al Qaida. No strikes had been leveled against Assad forces 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 Trump take action to 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 told reporters in Palm Beach.
Later in the day, Tillerson put the evening’s attack in the context of action that Obama didn’t carry out when he drew “a red line” in a seemingly off-the-cuff remark at an August 2012 news conference, but failed to respond militarily after chemical attacks in the Damascus suburbs in 2013. Instead, the U.S. and Russia worked out an agreement for disarming Syria’s chemical arsenal.
Tillerson said Trump took that history into consideration when deciding to launch Thursday’s attacks.
“President Trump evaluated this first attack, an attack that occurred on his watch, and reflected on past responses or lack of responses. He came to the conclusion that he could not yet again turn away, turn a blind eye to what had happened,” Tillerson said.
In his statement on the attacks, Trump said years of previous attempts at changing Assad’s behavior had failed “and failed very dramatically.”
“As long as America stands for justice, then peace and harmony will in the end prevail,” Trump said.