(UPI) — One week after a suspected chemical attack on civilians the United States blamed on the Syrian government, President Donald Trump on Friday ordered strikes on Syrian targets.
“A short time ago, I ordered the United States armed forces to launch precision strikes on targets associated with the chemical weapons capabilities of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad,” Trump announced during a 9 p.m. televised address.
The move comes after days of warnings by the U.S. president to the Assad regime and its supporter, the government of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Syrian news outlet Al-Masdar News reported cruise missiles struck rural Damascus and caused explosions at Dumayr Airbase. The report said the Syrian air force uses the base to launch strikes on Eastern Ghouta.
Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the strikes targeted three sites in Syria specifically associated with chemical weapons production. The sites included a scientific research center in greater Damascus, a chemical weapons storage facility in Homs, and another storage facility and command post in Homs.
“This evening we conducted strikes with two allies on multiple sites that will result in a long-term degradation of Syria’s capability to research, develop and deploy chemical and biological weapons,” he said during a Pentagon briefing after Trump’s announcement.
Dunford said there was initial “surface-to-air activity” by the Syrian government in response.
Human rights activists in Syria and Western leaders accused the Assad regime of dropping barrel bombs full of chemicals on the town of Douma last weekend. The attack killed dozens and injured up to 500 people.
“This massacre was a significant escalation in a pattern of chemical weapons use by that very terrible regime,” Trump said, adding that they were the “crimes of a monster.”
Trump said the operation would be conducted in cooperation with the militaries of France and Britain. He said the United States’ response would integrate “all instruments of our power,” including diplomatic and economic avenues, though the administration doesn’t want an “indefinite presence” in Syria.
British Prime Minister Theresa May said she authorized the coordinated response in order to degrade the Assad regime’s chemical weapons capability.
“This persistent pattern of behavior must be stopped — not just to protect innocent people in Syria from the horrific deaths and casualties caused by chemical weapons but also because we cannot allow the erosion of the international norm that prevents the use of these weapons,” she said.
“We have sought to use every possible diplomatic channel to achieve this.”
French President Emmanuel Macron said the red line set by France in May 2017 has been crossed.
“Since May 2017, the priorities of France in Syria are constant: to end the fight against [the Islamic State], to allow the access of the humanitarian aid to the civil populations, to initiate a collective dynamic to reach a political settlement of the conflict, so that Syria finally find peace and ensure the stability of the region,” he said.
Trump blamed Iran and Russia for their support of the Assad regime, saying Moscow has failed to live up to its guarantee to make sure the Syrian government got rid of its chemical weapons.
“What kind of a nation wants to be associated with the mass murder of innocent men, women and children?” Trump asked, addressing Iran and Russia. “The nations of the world can be judged by the friends they keep. No nation can succeed in the long run by promoting rogue states … and murderous dictators.”
The Russian ambassador to the United States, Anatoly Antonov, said Moscow’s “warnings have been left unheard.”
“A pre-designed scenario is being implemented. Again, we are being threatened. We warned that such actions will not be left without consequences,” he said.
“All responsibility for them rests with Washington, London and Paris. Insulting the president of Russia is unacceptable and inadmissible. The U.S. — the possessor of the biggest arsenal of chemical weapons — has no moral right to blame other countries.”
The U.S.-led strikes come about one year after Trump ordered the launching of 58 Tomahawk missiles targeting a Syrian airfield from which another chemical attack was launched. That chemical attack in Khan Sheikhoun killed and injured hundreds of civilians.
Defense Secretary James Mattis told reporters the U.S. military went to “great lengths to avoid civilian casualties” in its strikes on Syria Friday, though they used more than double the number of weapons over the 2017 attack.
Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., slammed the Trump administration for carrying out military action against Syria without authorization from Congress.
“Despite being in office for 15 months, the administration has not taken steps to outline a comprehensive strategy for Syria. Further, the administration has failed to request an authorization from Congress for further military action against Assad’s regime,” he tweeted, adding that he believes the Assad regime must be held accountable.
Mattis defended Trump’s authority to order the strike Friday under Article 2 of the Constitution, saying it was in the United States’ “vital national interest” to deter the “use and proliferation of chemical weapons.”
Dunford said there were deconfliction discussions with the Russian government, but the United States did not warn Moscow about specific strikes.
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