President Donald Trump’s decision to launch a missile attack on a Syrian airbase, the first such U.S. action in six years of civil war, came after the president went through a “72-hour evolution” of his views on Syria, White House press secretary Sean Spicer said on Friday.
Trump, who during his presidential campaign expressed little interest in ousting Syrian President Bashar Assad, was clearly moved, Spicer said, by the images he saw of the victims of a chemical weapons attack Tuesday on Khan Sheikhoun, a rebel-held town in Syria’s Irbil province. The attack killed at least 86 people, at least 30 of them children, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitoring group.
But the process by which Trump reached the decision to launch 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles – the U.S. military used the latest model, which costs about $1.5 million each – was anything but emotional, Spicer said. Instead, the president and his advisers went through a methodical and thorough review of the options.
Presented with mulitple possible military courses, Trump picked one that was intended to send a message, but take few lives. The Pentagon would not describe the other options or say how many there were, only that Trump chose “the proportional response.”
Syrian government news reports said nine people were killed in the raid, which U.S. military officials said destroyed 20 Syrian jets as well as hangars and fuel storage. Eyewitnesses quoted by the BBC described wide scale damage to nearby housing, and the Syrian government news agency reported that at least two missiles dropped on villages outside the base’s confines.
As of Friday afternoon, there were no plans for further strikes, according to administration and U.S. military officials.
The White House assured leaders of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that Thursday’s strike was a one-off operation. The Trump administration also told allies that the decision had been meant to deter future use of chemical weapons, and not to start a prolonged air campaign against Assad.
“We don’t see it as the start of a different military campaign,” British defense secretary Michael Fallon said Friday. He called the strike “very limited and . . . entirely appropriate.”
Trump ‘gave the OK to move ahead’ before dinner at Mar-a-Lago
The president was first informed of the chemical attack in Syria during his daily intelligence briefing at 10:30 a.m. on Tuesday. Later that day, he blamed the attack on the “weakness and irresolution” of President Barack Obama, a reference to his predecessor’s decision not to strike after a chemical attack by the Syrian government in the suburbs of Damascus in August 2013. Instead, the crisis led to a Syrian agreement to destroy its chemical weapons supplies.
Trump was first briefed on possible military operations at 3 p.m. the next day during a meeting of the National Security Council, Spicer said. He asked for more information.
Then on Thursday, as he flew to Florida for a summit with Chinese Presient Xi Jinping, Trump consulted with his national security team aboard Air Force One. At Mar-a-Lago, his Palm Beach retreat, Trump met “in a secure room” and gave the go-ahead for the strike, Spicer said.
A photo released by the White House shows the people in the room during that meeting included Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, chief strategist Steve Bannon and his son-in-law Jared Kushner, among others.
Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, Vice President Mike Pence and Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, were there via a secure line. The Pentagon said Trump gave the go ahead around 4:30 p.m.
As Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping sat down to dinner at the Florida resort, U.S. warships in the eastern Mediterranean launched their missiles at 7:40 p.m. An hour later, as the missiles began arriving at their target, Pence, Tillerson, Mattis, McMaster began calling heads of government, defense ministers and congressional leaders to notify them of the strike.
Military officials said that Russia, which had personnel at the site, had been warned in advance, though they refused to say how much in advance.
As the first missiles made impact, Trump told Xi about the strike. Spicer declined to characterize the Chinese president’s reaction.
Long-term impact or all military theater?
In the aftermath of the strikes, the White House and the Pentagon seemed eager to publicize what took place. Dramatic video of the Tomahawk launches was released Thursday night after Trump gave an emotional address announcing the strike. He described the Tuesday chemical attack as his motivation.
But the long-term impact of the strike was uncertain. A senior U.S. military official who spoke on the condition of anonymity said that taking “20 aircraft out of their inventory will make an impact.”
Russia, Assad’s ally, said Friday it would bolster Syrian air defenses to “protect the most sensitive Syrian infrastructure facilities.”
‘High confidence’ that Assad carried out chemical attack
Pentagon officials on Friday said that Assad’s government launched the chemical attack at a time that anti-government rebels were on the offensive in Hama province, and the Syrian government “was at risk of losing Hama airfield,” in the words of a U.S. senior military official who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “We think that this attack is linked to a battlefield desperation decision,” he said.
The U.S. military is investigating Russia’s role in the attack, including in the later bombing of a hospital where victims were being treated, which it suspects was meant to hide the evidence of the chemical attack.
“At a minimum, Russia failed to reign in the Syrian regime,” a senior military official said.
Kumar reported from Palm Beach, Florida.