President Donald Trump ordered a military attack against Syrian President Bashar Assad on Friday, joining allies Britain and France in launching missile strikes in retaliation for what Western nations said was the deliberate gassing of Syrian civilians.
The coordinated strike marked the second time in a year that Trump has used force against Assad, who U.S. officials believe has continued to test the West’s willingness to accept gruesome chemical attacks.
Trump announced the strikes in an address to the nation Friday evening. “The purpose of our action tonight is to establish a strong deterrent,” he said, against the production and use of chemical weapons, describing the issue as vital to national security. Trump added that the United States is prepared “to sustain this response” until its aims are met.
Trump asked both Russia and Iran, backers of Assad, “what kind of nation wants to be associated” with mass murder and suggested that someday the United States might be able to “get along” with both if they change their policies.
The assault followed repeated threats of military action from Trump, who has been moved by civilian suffering to set aside his concerns about foreign military conflicts, since the reported chemical attack that killed civilians in a rebel-held town outside Damascus last weekend.
The operation capped nearly a week of debate in which Pentagon leaders voiced concerns that an attack could pull the United States into Syria’s civil war and trigger a dangerous conflict with Assad ally Russia - without necessarily halting chemical attacks.
Both Syria and Russia have denied involvement in the attack, which Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov alleged had been staged.
The episode is the latest illustration of the hazards arising from a conflict that has killed an estimated half-million people and drawn in world powers since it began as a peaceful uprising in 2011.
The attack raised the possibility of retaliation by Russia or Iran, which also provides military support to Assad, threatening in particular to increase the risks facing a force of 2,000 Americans in Syria, as part of the battle against the Islamic State. While the United States has not been at war with the Syrian government, U.S. troops often operate in proximity to Iranian- or Russian-backed groups.
In the wake of last weekend’s gruesome attack, some U.S. officials advocated a larger, and therefore riskier, strike than the limited action Trump ordered in April 2017, also in response to suspected chemical weapons use.
That attack involved 59 Tomahawk missiles fired from two U.S. warships in the Mediterranean Sea. It fulfilled Trump’s vow that chemical weapons are a “red line” that he, unlike his predecessor Barack Obama, would not allow Assad to cross. But the airfield targeted by the Pentagon resumed operations shortly after the attack and, according to Western intelligence assessments, chemical attacks resumed.
Assad’s defiance has presented Trump with a choice of whether to make a larger statement and incur a larger risk this time. Planning for these strikes focused on ways to curb Assad’s ability to use such weapons again.
Risks of a wider attack include the possibility of a dangerous escalation with Russia, whose decision to send its military to Syria in 2015 reversed the course of the war in Assad’s favor. Since then, Russia has used Syria as a testing ground for some of its most sophisticated weaponry.
“Get ready Russia, because they will be coming, nice and new and ‘smart!’ ” Trump tweeted Wednesday, referring to U.S. missiles.
That took military officials by surprise. But on Thursday, Trump said he did not mean to suggest missile strikes were imminent.
“Never said when an attack on Syria would take place,” he tweeted. “Could be very soon or not so soon at all!”
A larger strike, possibly including stealth aircraft and strikes on multiple sites, could inflict lasting damage on military facilities and economic infrastructure that have been vital to Assad’s ability to gain the upper hand in a seven-year civil war.
Since last year’s strike, multiple chemical attacks have been reported in opposition areas, most of them involving chlorine rather than the nerve agent sarin, as was used in 2017, suggesting the government may have adjusted its tactics.
Among the chief factors that military planners must consider are air defenses in Syria, which were bolstered by Russia’s decision to enter the war and could pose a threat should the Pentagon employ manned aircraft in the attack. Their reach was demonstrated in February when an Israeli F-16 fighter jet crashed amid Syrian antiaircraft fire.
The United States has flown an array of aircraft over Syria since it began strikes against the Islamic State in 2014, but those operations have mostly steered clear of government and Russian activities. The Assad regime has not authorized the U.S. operations, but it also has not tried to shoot down American aircraft.
Earlier Friday, Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, accused Russia of lying and covering up for the Assad government. Assad’s government had used chemical weapons at least 50 times in the past seven years of warfare, Haley claimed.
“Russia can complain all it wants about fake news, but no one is buying its lies and its coverups,” she said. “Russia was supposed to guarantee Assad would not use chemical weapons, and Russia did the opposite.”
Russia had called for the emergency meeting on Syria as military action seemed likely.
Russia’s U.N. ambassador, Vassily Nebenzia, accused the United States, France and Britain of saber-rattling.
“Why are you seeking to plunge the Middle East into such difficulties, provoking one conflict after another, pitting one state against another?” he said, claiming that anti-government militias had received “instructions” to begin an offensive as soon as an act of force begins. “Is the latest wave of chaos being unleashed only for the sake of that?”
Russia is Assad’s most powerful ally and has thousands of troops and military advisers, as well as air-defense systems, deployed in Syria.
Russia’s military has threatened to shoot down any U.S. missiles that put Russian lives at risk. Russia could also fire at the launch platforms used - potentially U.S. planes or ships. Russian officials have said U.S. and Russian military staffs remain in contact regarding Syria, even as Russian media have carried stories in recent days about the potential outbreak of “World War III” as a consequence of a U.S. airstrike against Assad.
Russian President Vladimir Putin warned French President Emmanuel Macron in a phone call Friday the situation remained tense, the Kremlin said in a statement.
“Most important, it is imperative to avoid badly planned and dangerous actions that would be crude violations of the U.N. Charter and would have unpredictable consequences,” the Kremlin said. “Both leaders directed the ministers of defense and foreign affairs to maintain close contact with the goal of de-escalating the situation.”
U.N. Secretary General António Guterres told the Security Council that he feared events could escalate rapidly into a regional and even global conflict, and urged all states “to act responsibly in these dangerous circumstances.”
France’s U.N. ambassador, Francois Delattre, said the Syrian government’s decision to use chemical weapons meant that it had “reached a point of no return,” necessitating a “robust, united and steadfast response.”
“France will shoulder its responsibility to end an intolerable threat to our collective security,” Delattre told the Security Council.
British U.N. Ambassador Karen Pierce noted that Prime Minister Theresa May’s Cabinet “has agreed on the need to take action to alleviate humanitarian distress and to deter the further use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime.”
Announcement of that approval Thursday did not specify that the response should be military, although that was the expectation.
“We will continue to work with our friends and allies to coordinate an international response to that end,” Pierce said Friday.
Opposition lawmakers urged May to first seek Parliament’s consent before committing to any military action. Nothing requires that May do so, but the convention is for British lawmakers to be given the chance to vote. Parliament is in recess but could be recalled for an emergency session.
Meanwhile, a team of investigators from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons arrived in Syria to look for evidence.