The US, UK and France have launched air strikes against what they allege are Syrian chemical weapons facilities in response to chemical weapons attack in a Damascus suburb a week ago.
The Pentagon said the air strikes, which began at 4am Syrian time (2amGMT), involved planes and ship-launched missiles, more than a hundred weapons in all. Officials named three targets: a scientific research centre in Damascus, a chemical weapons storage facility west of Homs, and another storage site and command post nearby.
“Right now, we have no additional attacks planned” the US defence secretary, James Mattis, said. “This is a one-time shot.”
However, in a televised address from the White House earlier to announce the strikes, Donald Trump said the US and its allies would strike again if there were more chemical weapons attacks by the regime of Bashar al-Assad.
“We are prepared to sustain this response until the Syrian regime stops its use of prohibited chemical agents,” he said. Referring to last Saturday’s chemical weapons attack reported to have killed over 70 people, Trump said. “These are not actions of a man, they are crimes of a monster instead.”
After Trump finished his seven-minute address, Theresa May and Emmanuel Macron made separate announcements of British and French participation, stressing that the strikes were limited to Syrian regime chemical facilities, and had no wider goals.
May said there was no alternative to the action the three countries were taking.
Explosions were reported in Damascus moments after Trump’s address. Later a Syrian official said all sites had been evacuated “days ago” after a warning from Russia.
The Russian ambassador to Washington, Anatoly Antonov, issued a statement threatening “consequences”.
“A pre-designed scenario is being implemented,” Antonov’s statement said. “Again, we are being threatened. We warned that such actions will not be left without consequences. All responsibility for them rests with Washington, London and Paris.”
None of the air strikes hit zones where Russian air defence systems protect the Russian bases of Tartus and Hmeimim, Russian news agencies cited the ministry of defence as saying.
The Pentagon said in the immediate aftermath of the strikes that while there had been some Syrian air defence fire, it was not clear whether Russian air defences in Syria had gone into action.
The attack came on the eve of a planned visit by inspectors from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) to the site of last week’s chemical weapons attacks, the Damascus suburb of Douma. The US, UK and France had announced they had reached their own conclusion that the Syrian regime was responsible, an accusation denied by Damascus and Russia, which claimed on Friday the attack had been staged by British intelligence.
The White House produced a summary of the evidence it said pointed to the regime’s responsibility for the Douma attack. It said that regime helicopters were seen by witnesses hovering over the area of the attack on 7 April, dropping barrel bombs. Remnants of the barrel bombs looked like “chlorine barrel bombs from past attacks”. It said that the victims showed symptoms of both chlorine and sarin poisoning.
The White House assessment also claimed there was “reliable information indicating coordination between Syrian military officials before the attack.”
‘We have sent a clear message’
Mattis, who had said on Thursday that the US was still looking at the evidence, insisted on Friday night that he was “absolutely confident” that the regime was responsible for use of poison gas in Douma. He said there was clear evidence of the use of chlorine, but “we are not certain about sarin right now”.
Mattis said that the “Assad regime clearly did not get the message last year” when the US launched a Tomahawk missile strike at a desert airbase following a poison gas attack in April 2017. On that occasion, 57 missiles were fired. Mattis said slightly more than double that total were used in the airstrikes overnight.
“This time, our allies and we have struck harder,” the defence secretary said. “Together we have sent a clear message to Assad and his murderous lieutenants that they should not perpetrate another chemical weapons attack for which they will be held accountable.”
Trump said the Douma attack was “a significant escalation in a pattern of chemical weapons use by that very terrible regime.” He noted that establishing deterrence against use of such weapons represented “a vital national security interest of the US”.
Macron confirmed that France was involved in the air strikes, saying the French role would be limited to Syria’s chemical weapons facilities.
“We cannot tolerate the recurring use of chemical weapons, which is an immediate danger for the Syrian people and our collective security,” a statement from the Elysee presidential office said.
In London, Theresa May issued a statement about British participation in the air strikes.
“This evening I have authorised British armed forces to conduct co-ordinated and targeted strikes to degrade the Syrian Regime’s chemical weapons capability and deter their use,” the prime minister said in a written statement from Downing Street.
Like Trump a few minutes earlier, May stressed that the aims of the intervention were limited to stopping chemical weapons use, for humanitarian reasons, and to uphold the international norm outlawing chemical weapon use.
“We have sought to use every possible diplomatic channel to achieve this.But our efforts have been repeatedly thwarted,” May said, pointing to a Russian veto at the UN security council on a proposal to set up a new investigative body for chemical weapons incidents in Syria.
“So there is no practicable alternative to the use of force to degrade and deter the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime. This is not about intervening in a civil war. It is not about regime change.”
Trump addressed some of his remarks to the Syrian regime’s principal external backers, Russia and Iran.
“What kind of nation wants to be associated with the mass murder of men, women and children?” he asked. “Russia must decide if it will continue down this dark path or join civilised nations as a force for peace.”
The decision to launch air strikes in response to last Saturday’s chemical weapons attack in a rebel-held district of Damascus was fraught with risks. There are Russian and Iranian forces in bases across Syrian and substantial Russian air defences in the west of the country. Russian officials had threatened to use those defences.
The US defence secretary, James Mattis, had expressed concerns that air strikes could lead a situation “escalating out of control”. The US chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, General Joseph Dunford, said that the targets had been chosen very carefully.