US fires missiles at Assad airbase; Russia denounces 'aggression'



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.

RELATED: US launches missile strike at Syrian base

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U.S. Navy guided-missile destroyer USS Ross (DDG 71) fires a tomahawk land attack missile in Mediterranean Sea on April 7, 2017.

(Robert S. Price/Courtesy U.S. Navy/Handout via REUTERS)

Battle damage assessment image of Shayrat Airfield, Syria, is seen in this DigitalGlobe satellite image, released by the Pentagon following U.S. Tomahawk Land Attack Missile strikes from Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyers, the USS Ross and USS Porter on April 7, 2017.

(DigitalGlobe/Courtesy U.S. Department of Defense/Handout via REUTERS)

U.S. Navy guided-missile destroyer USS Ross (DDG 71) fires a tomahawk land attack missile in Mediterranean Sea on April 7, 2017.

(Robert S. Price/Courtesy U.S. Navy/Handout via REUTERS)

Shayrat Airfield in Homs, Syria is seen in this DigitalGlobe satellite image released by the U.S. Defense Department on April 6, 2017 after announcing U.S. forces conducted a cruise missile strike against the Syrian Air Force airfield. DigitalGlobe/Courtesy U.S. Department of Defense/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVE. MANDATORY CREDIT.

U.S. Navy guided-missile destroyer USS Ross (DDG 71) fires a tomahawk land attack missile in Mediterranean Sea on April 7, 2017.

(Robert S. Price/Courtesy U.S. Navy/Handout via REUTERS)

U.S. Navy guided-missile destroyer USS Ross (DDG 71) fires a tomahawk land attack missile in Mediterranean Sea on April 7, 2017.

(Robert S. Price/Courtesy U.S. Navy/Handout via REUTERS)

Shayrat Airfield in Homs, Syria is seen in this DigitalGlobe satellite image on February 18, 2017 and released by the U.S. Defense Department on April 6, 2017 after announcing U.S. forces conducted a cruise missile strike against the Syrian Air Force airfield. 

(DigitalGlobe/Courtesy U.S. Department of Defense/Handout via REUTERS)

U.S. Navy guided-missile destroyer USS Porter (DDG 78) conducts strike operations while in the Mediterranean Sea which U.S. Defense Department said was a part of cruise missile strike against Syria on April 7, 2017.

(Ford Williams/Courtesy U.S. Navy/Handout via REUTERS)

U.S. Navy guided-missile destroyer USS Porter (DDG 78) conducts strike operations while in the Mediterranean Sea, April 7, 2017. Porter, forward-deployed to Rota, Spain, is conducting naval operations in the U.S. 6th Fleet area of operations in support of U.S. national security interests in Europe.

(U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Ford Williams/Released)

Battle damage assessment image of Shayrat Airfield, Syria, is seen in this DigitalGlobe satellite image, released by the Pentagon following U.S. Tomahawk Land Attack Missile strikes from Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyers, the USS Ross and USS Porter on April 7, 2017. 

(DigitalGlobe/Courtesy U.S. Department of Defense/Handout via REUTERS)

U.S. Navy guided-missile destroyer USS Porter (DDG 78) conducts strike operations while in the Mediterranean Sea which U.S. Defense Department said was a part of cruise missile strike against Syria on April 7, 2017.

(Ford Williams/Courtesy U.S. Navy/Handout via REUTER)

U.S. Navy guided-missile destroyer USS Porter (DDG 78) conducts strike operations while in the Mediterranean Sea which U.S. Defense Department said was a part of cruise missile strike against Syria on April 7, 2017.

(Ford Williams/Courtesy U.S. Navy/Handout via REUTERS)

Battle damage assessment image of Shayrat Airfield, Syria, is seen in this DigitalGlobe satellite image, released by the Pentagon following U.S. Tomahawk Land Attack Missile strikes from Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyers, the USS Ross and USS Porter on April 7, 2017. 

(DigitalGlobe/Courtesy U.S. Department of Defense/Handout via REUTERS)

U.S. Navy guided-missile destroyer USS Porter (DDG 78) conducts strike operations while in the Mediterranean Sea which U.S. Defense Department said was a part of cruise missile strike against Syria on April 7, 2017.

(Ford Williams/Courtesy U.S. Navy/Handout via REUTERS)

Syrian shepherds tend their flock near the damaged Shayrat ('ash-Shairat') airfield at the Syrian government forces military base targeted earlier overnight by US Tomahawk cruise missiles, southeast of the central and third largest Syrian city of Homs, on April 7, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / STRINGER (Photo credit should read STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images)
A picture taken on April 7, 2017 shows a view of the damaged Shayrat ('ash-Shairat') airfield at the Syrian government forces military base targeted earlier overnight by US Tomahawk cruise missiles, southeast of the central and third largest Syrian city of Homs. / AFP PHOTO / STRINGER (Photo credit should read STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images)
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"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.

"One airbase is not enough. There are 26 airbases that target civilians," tweeted Mohammad Alloush, a senior rebel official. George Sabra, a prominent opposition politician, told al-Hadath TV: "The truth is that militarily, if it is limited to this strike, then it has no meaning."

The view was shared by Meheyedine Akkari, a Syrian refugee living in a tent in Lebanon, who told Reuters TV he expected the U.S. strikes to have no effect on the war: "It is like giving the Syrian people who are bleeding a painkiller, but they will still continue to bleed until the last drop."

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.

RELATED: Reaction to US airstrikes in Syria

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Reaction to US airstrikes in Syria

U.S. President Donald Trump delivers an statement about missile strikes on a Syrian airbase, at his Mar-a-Lago estate in West Palm Beach, Florida, U.S., April 6, 2017.

(REUTERS/Carlos Barria)

This action in Syria was appropriate and just. My full statement: https://t.co/oIlOT65zTC
.@POTUS's strikes in #Syria send impt msg US won't stand by as #Assad, aided by #Russia, slaughters innocent Syrians https://t.co/aWTeS9N7PK
I support stopping Assad's atrocities, but it's unnerving that Trump changed his position on striking Syria 180 degrees in only 24 hours.
So @POTUS cares enough about the Syrian people to launch 50 Tomahawks but not enough to let the victims of Assad find refuge & freedom here.
My statement in response to U.S. missile strikes in #Syria: https://t.co/8oL0QlpIeS
Statement with @SenJohnMcCain on military strikes in Syria. https://t.co/kSzaEBifhI
MY OFFICIAL STMT TONIGHT ON SYRIAN MISSILE ATTACK: https://t.co/KpVJF9bgao https://t.co/oI0rMp0Ib4
I guess Trump wasn't "Putin's puppet" after all, he was just another deep state/Neo-Con puppet. I'm officially OFF the Trump train.
.@POTUS "Tonight, I ordered a targeted military strike on the airfield in Syria from where the chemical attack was launched." (1/2)
(2/2) It is in the vital national security interest of the United States to prevent and deter the spread or use of deadly chemical weapons.
This is an act of war. Congress needs to come back into session & hold a debate. Anything less is an abdication of… https://t.co/YWWwxTFpcQ
While we all condemn the atrocities in Syria, the United States was not attacked.
The President needs Congressional authorization for military action as required by the Constitution.
Today over 500,000 people have watched my videos and streams. 90% are @realDonaldTrump supporters, none want war with Syria. #NoMoreWars
Sen @ChrisCoons on #Syria airstrike: "The President’s actions today generate more questions than answers." https://t.co/SJUrusaCHS
The U.S. made clear tonight that the Assad regime's use of chemical weapons against innocent civilians in Syria will not be tolerated.
My full statement on the US airstrikes in Syria: https://t.co/kjzYtr29s8
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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.

RAISING STAKES IN THE SKIES

"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.

A Russian frigate carrying cruise missiles sailed through the Bosphorus Strait into the Mediterranean Sea, although there was no indication it was directly in response to U.S. action.

Several Western allies of the United States described the U.S. strikes as a proportionate response to Assad's suspected use of poison gas. A number of countries said they were notified in advance but none had been asked to take part.

Iran, Assad's other main ally, denounced it.

Syrian officials and their allies also said they did not expect the attack to lead to an expansion of the conflict.

"No doubt this will leave great tension on the political level, but I do not expect a military escalation," a senior, non-Syrian official in the alliance fighting in support of Assad who declined to be identified told Reuters. "Currently I do not believe that we are going toward a big war in the region."

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.

The United States has been conducting air strikes against Islamic State militants who control territory in eastern and northern Syria, and a small number of U.S. troops are on the ground assisting anti-Islamic State militias. But until now, Washington had avoided direct confrontation with Assad.

RELATED: Syria gas attack

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Syria gas attack
ATTENTION EDITORS - VISUAL COVERAGE OF SCENES OF INJURY OR DEATH A man carries the body of a dead child, after what rescue workers described as a suspected gas attack in the town of Khan Sheikhoun in rebel-held Idlib, Syria April 4, 2017. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah
ATTENTION EDITORS - VISUAL COVERAGE OF SCENES OF INJURY OR DEATH People stand near a dead body, after what rescue workers described as a suspected gas attack in the town of Khan Sheikhoun in rebel-held Idlib, Syria April 4, 2017. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah
A man breathes through an oxygen mask as another one receives treatments, after what rescue workers described as a suspected gas attack in the town of Khan Sheikhoun in rebel-held Idlib, Syria April 4, 2017. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah
A man breathes through an oxygen mask, after what rescue workers described as a suspected gas attack in the town of Khan Sheikhoun in rebel-held Idlib, Syria April 4, 2017. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah
ATTENTION EDITORS - VISUAL COVERAGE OF SCENES OF INJURY OR DEATH Men stand near dead bodies, after what rescue workers described as a suspected gas attack in the town of Khan Sheikhoun in rebel-held Idlib, Syria April 4, 2017. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah
EDITORS NOTE: Graphic content / A Syrian child receives treatment at a hospital in Khan Sheikhun, a rebel-held town in the northwestern Syrian Idlib province, following an attack on April 4, 2017. A suspected chemical attack killed at least 58 civilians including several children in rebel-held northwestern Syria, a monitor said, with the opposition accusing the government and demanding a UN investigation. / AFP PHOTO / Omar haj kadour (Photo credit should read OMAR HAJ KADOUR/AFP/Getty Images)
A man holds an injured baby inside a Turkish ambulance as injured Syrian people enter into Turkey from the Cilvegozu border gate in Hatay province, near the Syrian border on April 4, 2017. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in a phone call with Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on April 4, 2017 condemned a suspected chemical attack in northwestern Syria as an 'inhuman' strike that could endanger peace talks based in the Kazakh capital. / AFP PHOTO / DOGAN NEWS AGENCY / - / Turkey OUT (Photo credit should read -/AFP/Getty Images)
IDLIB, SYRIA - APRIL 4: A wounded kid receives medical treatment at sahra hospital after Assad Regime forces's attack with chlorine gas to Khan Shaykhun town of Idlib, Syria on April 4, 2017. (Photo by Abdulghani Arian/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
IDLIB, SYRIA - APRIL 4: A woman gets treatment at a hospital after Assad Regime forces attacked with suspected chlorine gas to Khan Shaykhun town of Idlib, Syria on April 4, 2017. (Photo by Bahjat Najar/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
IDLIB, SYRIA - APRIL 4: A child gets treatment at a hospital after Assad Regime forces attacked with suspected chlorine gas to Khan Shaykhun town of Idlib, Syria on April 4, 2017. (Photo by Bahjat Najar/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
ATTENTION EDITORS - VISUAL COVERAGE OF SCENES OF INJURY OR DEATH A man carries the body of a dead child, after what rescue workers described as a suspected gas attack in the town of Khan Sheikhoun in rebel-held Idlib, Syria April 4, 2017. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A crater is seen at the site of an airstrike, after what rescue workers described as a suspected gas attack in the town of Khan Sheikhoun in rebel-held Idlib, Syria April 4, 2017. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Turkish officials with chemical clothes carry a injured man on April 4, 2017 in Hatay province, near the Syrian border. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in a phone call with Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on April 4, 2017 condemned a suspected chemical attack in northwestern Syria as an 'inhuman' strike that could endanger peace talks based in the Kazakh capital. / AFP PHOTO / DOGAN NEWS AGENCY / - / Turkey OUT (Photo credit should read -/AFP/Getty Images)
EDITORS NOTE: Graphic content / Bodies lie in the parking area of a hospital in Khan Sheikhun, a rebel-held town in the northwestern Syrian Idlib province, following a suspected toxic gas attack on April 4, 2017. A suspected chemical attack killed at least 58 civilians including several children in rebel-held northwestern Syria, a monitor said, with the opposition accusing the government and demanding a UN investigation. / AFP PHOTO / Omar haj kadour (Photo credit should read OMAR HAJ KADOUR/AFP/Getty Images)
IDLIB, SYRIA - APRIL 4: A child gets treatment at a hospital after Assad Regime forces attacked with suspected chlorine gas to Khan Shaykhun town of Idlib, Syria on April 4, 2017. (Photo by Bahjat Najar/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
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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.

Trump's decision to strike Syrian government forces is a notable shift for a leader who in the past had repeatedly said he wanted better relations with Moscow, including to cooperate with Russia to fight Islamic State.

However, Trump had also criticized Obama for setting a "red line" threatening force against Assad if he used chemical weapons, only to pull back from ordering air strikes in 2013 when Assad agreed to give up his chemical arsenal.

Russian media long portrayed Trump as a figure who would promote closer relations with Moscow. At home, Trump's opponents have accused him of being too supportive of Putin. Tillerson is due in Russia next week, and Russian officials said they hoped to patch over the differences over Syria.

LIMP CORPSES, CHOKING CHILDREN

Tuesday's attack was the first time since 2013 that Syria was accused of using sarin, a banned nerve agent it was meant to have given up under the Russian-brokered, U.N.-enforced deal that persuaded Obama to call off air strikes four years ago.

Video shown around the world this week depicted limp bodies and children choking while rescue workers hosed them down to try to wash off the poison gas. In Russia, state television blamed rebels and did not show footage of victims.

Tomahawk missiles were fired from the USS Porter and USS Ross around 0040 GMT, striking multiple targets - including the airstrip, aircraft and fuel stations - on the Shayrat Air Base, which the Pentagon says was used to store chemical weapons.

Over the previous few months, many Western countries had been quietly backing away from long-standing demands that Assad leave power, accepting that rebels no longer had the power to remove him by force. But after the chemical weapons attack on Tuesday, several countries renewed calls for Assad to go.

Among them was Turkey, long one of Assad's principal foes, which had in recent months reached a rapprochement with Russia and had been co-sponsoring Syrian peace talks with Moscow.

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