The U.S. fired dozens of cruise missiles at a Syrian airbase Thursday, the first direct assault by American forces against the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad. The attack, ordered by President Donald Trump, was prompted by a deadly chemical attack in northwestern Syria earlier this week that Washington has blamed on Assad.
Here’s what you need to know:
A total of 59 Tomahawk missiles were launched by American forces targeting the Shayrat air base in Homs, western Syria, according to a Pentagon spokesperson. The strike was launched from two navy destroyers positioned in the Mediterranean Sea. The Pentagon said the strike targeted aircraft, aircraft shelters, petroleum, ammunition supply bunkers, air defense systems and radars, and that the U.S. took precaution to avoid civilian casualties.
The Pentagon said Russian forces, which also operate in the Shayrat airfield, were notified in advance of the strike, which the Kremlin later confirmed. The Syrian military said at least seven people were killed and nine wounded, the Associated Press reports, and the assault caused extensive damage.
The Russian military said on Friday morning that only 23 of the 59 missiles had reached the air base and that only six Syrian jets had been destroyed. The runway, Russia said, was still intact. However, a U.S. official said all but one of the 59 missiles struck their targets.
Trump spoke to reporters shortly after the attack, referring to the operation as a “vital national security interest” and calling on other nations to“end the slaughter and bloodshed in Syria.”
Why were the missiles launched?
The U.S. assault came in response to a deadly chemical attack earlier this week in the Syrian town of Khan Sheikhoun, in the country’s northwestern Idlib province. At least 72 people were killed, including many children, making it the deadliest such attack in years in the war-torn country.
The U.S. intelligence community had determined the attack was carried out by aircraft that had departed from the Shayrat airfield, according to the Pentagon spokesperson. U.S. officials said they believe a chemical nerve agent was used, and autopsies carried out by health officials in Turkey, where nearly 60 victims sought treatment, concluded that the agent was likely sarin, a banned substance considered a weapon of mass destruction.
The United Nations and Western leaders have blamed the attack on the Syrian government, which has denied using chemical weapons against its own citizens. Russia, a Syrian ally, has also denied the government was responsible, saying the deadly chemical exposure was caused by a rebel-owned arsenal that was struck during airstrikes by Syrian forces. That claim has been widely dismissed by world leaders.
The gruesome chemical attack caused immediate international outrage. “I think what happened in Syria is a disgrace to humanity,” Trump said during a news conference Wednesday. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson suggested, in a sudden shift of U.S. attitudes toward Assad, that “it would seem there would be no role for him to govern the Syrian people.”
How did Syria respond?
Assad's office has called the U.S. missile strike "reckless," "shortsighted" and “irresponsible.” It released a statement saying the dawn attack reflects a continuation of American policy based on targeting and “subjugating people.” It added that the strike was not based on true facts.
A report on Syrian state television earlier Friday referred to the missile attack as an act of “aggression” that undermined Damascus’ efforts to fight terrorism, the AP reprots. Citing an unnamed military official, the report said the Syrian military confirmed that the attack had caused material damage at the airbase, but did not elaborate on the degree of the destruction. State television said the attack “leads to losses,” but thus far offered little further detail.
Homs Governor Talal Barazi responded by claiming that the U.S. strikes were meant to “support the terrorists on the ground,” the AP reports. General Ali Ayyoub, the Syrian army's chief of General Staff, suggested that Washington attacked hastily without full knowledge of what happened in Khan Sheikhoun. The General said the U.S. was using the chemical attack as a “pretext” for “blatant aggression,” according to the AP.
The Syrian Coalition, an opposition group, welcomed the U.S. strike. The group said the move marked a step toward ending the impunity of the Assad regime and that more decisive actions should follow, according the AP.
How did Russia respond?
Russian President Vladimir Putin held a security council meeting to discuss the country's response, according to The Guardian. “The participants expressed deep concern at the inevitable negative consequences of these aggressive actions for the joint efforts to fight terrorism,” Dmitry Peskov, a spokesperson for Putin, said.
The Kremlin also issued a blunt statement of condemnation referring to the strike as “aggression against a sovereign state in violation of international law.” Peskov warned that “Washington has struck a significant blow to Russian-American relations, which were already in a sorry state.”
Peskov noted that the U.S. had ignored other reported uses of chemical weapons by the Assad regime, and claimed stockpiles had been destroyed in 2013. Russia also said it would suspend an agreement with the U.S. to prevent incidents in Syrian air space.
What are U.S. and other world leaders saying?
Many U.S. and world leaders agreed that Syria’s chemical attack warranted a stern response, and the strike has thus far been met with broad support. U.S. Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, both Republicans, backed the decision in a public statement, saying that the strike “sent an important message the United States will no longer stand idly by as Assad, aided and abetted by Putin’s Russia, slaughters innocent Syrians with chemical weapons and barrel bombs.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement Friday that he “fully supports” Trump’s decision. Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said his government “strongly supports the swift and just response” of the Trump administration, calling the attack “calibrated, proportionate and targeted.”
But a number of leading U.S. Democrats, including Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Tim Kaine, said that while the Syrian regime must be held accountable, any expansion of military intervention should be approved by Congress. Former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has also suggested that targeting Syria’s air power would be an appropriate deterrent to Assad’s aggression toward his own people. In an interview aired shortly before Trump’s announcement, Clinton said: “I really believe that we should have and still should take out his air fields and prevent him from being able to use them to bomb innocent people and drop sarin gas on them.”
The 15 members of the United Nations Security Council are set to meet at 11.30 am eastern time, to discuss the strike. The meeting of the 15-member council will be public, according to Reuters.