US punishes Syria for gas attack with missile barrage
In a dramatic escalation, President Trump ordered a cruise missile attack on the airfield where U.S. intelligence believes that Syrian aircraft launched a chemical weapons attack on civilians last week.
The strike represents the first overt military action taken against the regime of Syrian president Bashar Assad.
Trump's order to strike the Syrian government targets came a day after he said the chemical attacks -- whose grisly effects were broadcast worldwide where videos captured in the immediate aftermath -- "crossed a lot of lines for me" and said he felt a "responsibility" to respond.
"I will tell you it's already happened that my attitude toward Syria and Assad has changed very much," Trump said.
"When you kill innocent children -- innocent babies -- babies -- little babies with a chemical gas that is so lethal, people were shocked to hear what gas it was, that crosses many, many lines. Beyond a red line, many, many lines," Trump said.
As expected, Russia condemned the attack on its ally as an "act of aggression" and said it would negatively affect U.S.-Russia relations.
The strike took place at 8:40 p.m. ET (3:40 a.m. local time), when there would have been minimal activity at the base. It targeted aircraft, aircraft shelters, petroleum and logistical storage, ammunition supply bunkers, air defense systems, and "the things that make the airfield operate," Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis told reporters. The missiles were launched from warships in the Eastern Mediterranean.
"Initial indications are that this strike has severely damaged or destroyed Syrian aircraft and support infrastructure and equipment at Shayrat Airfield, reducing the Syrian government's ability to deliver chemical weapons," the Pentagon said in a statement.
Briefing reporters late Thursday night, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that the strike did not represent a "change in our policy or our posture in Syria," even though it marked the first time the US had decided to take military action against the Syrian government.
"There has been no change in that status," he said. "It does demonstrate that President Trump is willing to act when governments and actors cross the line ... and cross the line in the most heinous of ways."
Tillerson said the administration felt the strike was "proportional because it was targeted at the facility that delivered this most recent chemical attack."
The US military also showed reporters Thursday night an image of the radar track of a Syrian airplane leaving the airfield and flying to the chemical strike area Tuesday. A second image of bomb damage craters at the airbase was also shown to reporters at the Pentagon.
Tillerson said the US has a "very high level of confidence" that the Syrian regime carried out at least three attacks in recent weeks -- including on Tuesday -- using Sarin and nerve gas.
Congressional reaction to the strike was generally supportive, but some members – including Senator Rand Paul – warned the administration to work with Congress if the strike represented a significant change in American policy.
This is not likely. There will almost certainly be no U.S. ground troops in significant numbers going to war against Assad and the Russians, and no direct military action to assist U.S.-backed rebels who are being ground down by President Assad's forces. The president is cognizant of the risks involved in such action, and his administration has made no statement that indicates that such action is on the horizon.
The strike represents reality slapping the president in the face. Just days after Secretary Tillerson had indicated that there may be a role for President Assad to play in a post-civil war Syria, the dictator brazenly sent his planes to deliberately bomb civilian targets. While a correlation between Tillerson's statement and Assad's chemical attack cannot be proved, Assad's actions indicate his determination to annihilate the rebels looking to overthrow his regime.
All presidents reach a determination sooner or later about the thugs and dictators the U.S. must deal with in the world regarding how much the U.S. can afford to allow these bad actors the leeway to violate international law with impunity. In this case, Trump is right and Obama was wrong. The use of chemical weapons cannot ever be tolerated and must be severely punished. And the former president made the situation far worse by threatening to use force against the Syrian regime and then not following through.
Since President Obama reneged on his "red line" threat four years ago, there have been dozens of gas attacks on civilians using chlorine – a gas that has commercial and industrial applications but is prohibited by international law from being used as a weapon. In this specific attack, medical observers have evidence that the deadly nerve agent sarin was also used. That may be the "red line" Trump spoke of in his statement.
I think there's a good chance that the attack was a specific response to a specific incident and does not represent a sea change in American military policy in Syria.