US destroyers based in the eastern Mediterranean launched a barrage of cruise missiles on Syria early Friday morning in retaliation against a suspected chemical weapons attack on civilians blamed on President Bashar Assad.
US officials said 59 Tomahawk missiles targeted the Shayrat Airfield in Homs, from where they believe Syrian jets that carried out Tuesday's attack on Khan Sheikhoun took off. The strike targeted Syrian aircraft, an airstrip and fuel stations, officials said.
The missile strikes are the first time the United States has directly targeted Assad's forces in the six-year war.
The move marks a major escalation in the conflict after US President Donald Trump, who on the campaign trail warned of being dragged into the bloody multi-sided conflict, hinted the United States would retaliate for the suspected chemical attack.
Speaking at his Mar-a-Lago resort, where he is meeting with the Chinese president, Trump said the missile attack was in the United States' "vital national security interest."
The United States must "prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons," he said, adding there was no doubt the Syrian regime carried out a chemical attack on the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhoun, which killed at least 80 people.
"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," Trump said. "Years of previous attempts at changing Assad's behavior have all failed, and failed very dramatically."
The missile strikes raise the risk of confrontation with Russia and Iran, Assad's main backers. It was not immediately clear whether Russian or Iranian forces had been hit.
Pentagon spokesman Captain Jeff Davis told reporters that the US military gave Russia advanced notice of the missile strike.
Iran for its part has multiple proxies throughout the Middle East it may use to retaliate against the United States and its allies. Iran and Syria have had a mutual defense pact since the 1980s.
It was also not clear whether the missile strikes were a one-off retaliatory measure to send a message to Assad or part of a broader US shift that could see more targeting of Assad's forces.
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson hinted that the strikes were one-off. "We feel the strike itself was proportionate," he said.
Russia issues warning
Russia's Ambassador Vladimir Safronkov had warned earlier that there would be "negative consequences" if Washington took military action in Syria.
"All responsibility if military action occurs will be on the shoulders of those who initiated such a doubtful tragic enterprise," Safronkov said.
Friday morning's missile strikes are a sharp reversal from last week, when Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson suggested ousting Assad was no longer a US priority.
Trump's quick decision to strike Assad's forces came nearly three-and-a-half years after President Barack Obama threatened military action after hundreds were killed in a chemical attack in a Damascus suburb.
Obama declared a "red line" and was posed to strike Assad's forces before reversing course, opening him to criticism that he did not enforce his red lines and emboldened US opponents.
After failing to get approval for military action from Congress, Obama struck a deal with Russia to remove Syria's chemical weapons stockpile after Damascus signed the international chemical weapons treaty. In 2014, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons said it had removed Syria's chemical weapons stockpiles.
The Syrian government has since been accused of carrying out multiple chlorine gas attacks not covered by the US-Russia brokered deal to remove the chemical weapons stockpiles. Use of chlorine weapons is prohibited under the international chemical weapons convention, but production of chlorine is not. Rebels and the so-called "Islamic State" have also been accused of chemical weapons attacks during the six-year war.
The United States accuses Assad of using chlorine gas mixed with a highly toxic sarin-like nerve agent that should have been removed or disposed of as part of the 2013 deal.
US retaliation against Syria comes only days after the alleged chemical attack, raising questions whether Trump may have rushed to take military action before a full investigation into what precisely happened at Khan Sheikhoun.
cw/kl (AP, Reuters, AFP)