The United States fired cruise missiles on Friday at a Syrian airbase from which President Donald Trump said a deadly chemical weapons attack had been launched, the first direct U.S. assault on the government of Bashar al-Assad in six years of civil war.
In the biggest foreign policy decision of his presidency so far, Trump ordered the step his predecessor Barack Obama never took: directly targeting the Syrian military for its suspected role in a poison gas attack that killed at least 70 people
That catapulted Washington into confrontation with Russia, which has military advisers on the ground aiding its ally, President Assad. The Kremlin denounced the strikes as illegal.
“Years of previous attempts at changing Assad’s behavior have all failed and failed very dramatically,” Trump said as he announced the attack from his Florida resort, Mar-a-Lago, where he was meeting Chinese President Xi Jinping.
“Even beautiful babies were cruelly murdered in this very barbaric attack,” he said of Tuesday’s chemical weapons strike, which Western countries blame on Assad’s forces. “No child of God should ever suffer such horror.”
Assad’s office said Damascus would respond by striking its enemies harder: “This aggression has increased Syria’s resolve to hit those terrorist agents, to continue to crush them, and to raise the pace of action to that end wherever they are.”
U.S. officials said that the strike was a “one-off” intended to deter future chemical weapons attacks, and not an expansion of the U.S. role in the Syria war.
The swift action is likely to be interpreted as a signal to Russia, as well as to countries such as North Korea, China and Iran where Trump has faced foreign policy tests early in his presidency, that he is willing to use force.
“This clearly indicates the president is willing to take decisive action when called for,” U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told reporters. “I would not in any way attempt to extrapolate that to a change in our policy or our posture relative to our military activities in Syria today. There has been no change in that status.”
The strikes could cheer Assad’s enemies, after months when Western powers appeared to grow increasingly resigned to his staying in power. But opposition figures said an isolated assault on a single target was still far from the decisive intervention they have sought for many years.
The Syrian government and Moscow have denied that Syrian forces were behind the gas attack, but Western countries have dismissed their explanation – that chemicals leaked from a rebel weapons depot after an air strike – as not credible.
The Syrian army said the U.S. attack killed six people at its airbase near the city of Homs. It called the strike “blatant aggression” and said it made the United States a “partner” of “terrorist groups” including Islamic State. Homs Governor Talal Barazi told Reuters the death toll was seven.
Syrian state television later said nine civilians were killed in villages near the base. There was no independent confirmation of civilian casualties.
“President Putin views the U.S. strikes on Syria as aggression against a sovereign state in violation of the norms of international law and on a made-up up pretext,” said a Kremlin statement. “This step by Washington will inflict major damage on U.S.-Russia ties.”
U.S. officials said they had taken pains to ensure Russian troops were not killed, warning Russian forces in advance and avoiding striking parts of the base where Russians were present.
Russian television showed craters and rubble at the airbase and said nine aircraft had been destroyed.
Moscow suspended communication with U.S. forces designed to stop planes colliding over Syria.
Washington has long backed rebels fighting against Assad in a multi-sided civil war that has killed more than 400,000 people and driven half of Syrians from their homes since 2011.
Russia, meanwhile, joined the war on Assad’s behalf in 2015, action that decisively turned the momentum of the conflict in the Syrian government’s favor. Although they support opposing sides in the war between Assad and rebels, Washington and Moscow both say they share a single main enemy, Islamic State.