Syria: US warships launch cruise missile strike against Assad airfield in retaliation for chemical attack

The United States has fired a barrage of cruise missiles into Syria in retaliation for this week’s chemical weapons attack against civilians.

It was the first direct American assault on the Syrian Government, and Donald Trump’s most dramatic military order since becoming president.

About 60 US Tomahawk missiles, fired from warships in the Mediterranean Sea, targeted an air base in retaliation for a chemical weapons attack that American officials believe Syrian Government aircraft launched with a nerve agent, possibly sarin.

The targets at the Government-controlled Shayrat base, in central Syria, were an airstrip, aircraft and fuel stations, a US official said.

The base was where US officials say the Syrian military planes that dropped the chemicals had taken off.

The missiles hit early Friday morning, local time, with the US military claiming it appeared the strikes severely damaged or destroyed Syrian aircraft as well as support infrastructure and equipment.

The attack killed at least four Syrian soldiers, including a general, according to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which said its report was based on its own sources.

The Syrian military could not be immediately reached for comment on the report.

Talal Barazi, the governor of Syria’s Homs province, told the Associated Press civilians were among the casualties, but did not give precise numbers.

“The use of chemical weapons against innocent people will not be tolerated,” the Pentagon said in a statement, adding the strike was intended to deter the regime from using chemical weapons again.

The President’s national security adviser, General HR McMaster, said Mr Trump was given three options for possible responses to the chemical attack and told advisers to focus on two. He made a decision the day before the strikes.

Trump says attack was in ‘vital security interest’ of the US

Speaking after news of the launch emerged, Mr Trump said he called on “all civilised nations” to seek to end the bloodshed and slaughter in Syria.

He said the US missile attack was in the nation’s “vital national security interest”, arguing that the United States must “prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons”.

He said there was “no dispute that Syria used banned chemical weapons” in Tuesday’s attack on the town of Khan Sheikhoun.

“[Syrian President Bashar al-] Assad choked out the lives of helpless men, women and children. It was a slow and brutal death for so many. Even beautiful babies were cruelly murdered in this barbaric attack,” Mr Trump said in Florida, where he was holding talks with China’s leader Xi Jinping.

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He said previous attempts at getting Mr Assad to change his behaviour had failed.

The surprise strike marked a striking reversal for Mr Trump, who warned as a candidate against the US getting pulled into the Syrian civil war, now in its seventh year.

But the President said he was moved by the photos of children killed in the chemical attack, calling it a “disgrace to humanity” that crossed “a lot of lines.”

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the attack showed the President “is willing to take decisive action when called for”.

“I think it does demonstrate that President Trump is willing to act when governments and actors cross the line and cross the line on violating commitments they’ve made and cross the line in the most heinous of ways,” he said.

The President did not announce the attacks in advance, though he and other national security officials ratcheted up their warnings to the Syrian Government throughout the day Thursday.

Strike ‘aggression against a sovereign nation’, Putin says

US officials have placed some of the blame on Russia, one of Syria’s most important benefactors, for the chemical attack. Mr Tillerson, in Florida with Mr Trump, said Moscow had failed to live up to a 2013 agreement that was intended to strip Syria of its chemical weapons stockpiles.

“Either Russia has been complicit or Russia has been simply incompetent in its ability to deliver on its end of the agreement,” Mr Tillerson said.

But Russian President Vladimir Putin has reportedly hit back, saying the US strike broke international law and seriously hurt US-Russia relations.

News agencies citing Mr Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said he regarded the US action as “aggression against a sovereign nation” on a “made-up pretext” and as a cynical attempt to distract the world from civilian deaths in Iraq.

Mr Peskov was quoted as saying Russia did not believe that Syria possessed chemical weapons and the US move would inevitably create a serious obstacle to creating an international coalition to fight terrorism, an idea Mr Putin has repeatedly pushed.

Viktor Ozerov, the head of the defence and security committee at the Russian Upper House of Parliament, said Russia would call for an urgent meeting of the UN Security Council.

“This could be viewed as an act of aggression of the US against a UN nation,” he was quoted as saying.

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The Pentagon said Russia was given advance notice of the strikes, via an “established deconfliction line” the two countries share, adding the missiles did not target areas Russians were occupying.

The United States also told Australia of the strikes before they took place. Defence sources told the ABC Australia was advised of the strikes “a couple of hours” before they happened.

A Syrian opposition group, the Syrian Coalition, welcomed the US attack, saying it puts an end to an age of “impunity” and should be just the beginning.

Strike sends vitally important message, Turnbull says

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull this afternoon told reporters that while Australia was not involved in the strike, it supported the action.

“This is a vitally important signal, a vitally important message, that we will not tolerate — the world will not tolerate — the use of these chemical weapons,” he said.

“The retribution has been proportionate and it has been swift. We support the United States in that swift action.”

Defence Minister Marise Payne said US Secretary of Defence James Mattis advised her of the planned strike this morning.

She said in light of the attack, Australia was reviewing its protection of military assets in the region.

“As you know, Australia’s air task group is confined to operations in eastern Syria, including in the vicinity of Raqqa, where we continue to target Daesh,” she said.

“Australia has also taken appropriate measures in light of this operation to review our force protection arrangements in the Middle East.”

Mr Turnbull refused to say if the US strike would be a one-off attack on Syria, but stressed it was not indicative of a war against the Assad regime.

“It is a proportionate and calibrated response designed to prevent that airfield being used to deliver chemical weapons again,” he said.

“You can imagine, 59 cruise missiles is a substantial attack on that airfield. But we are not at war with the Assad regime and United States have made it clear that they are not seeking to overthrow the Assad regime.”

A military official quoted on Syrian TV said an air base in central Syria was hit early Friday, causing material damage. Another statement, also attributed to an unnamed official, referred to “losses.” The officials did not elaborate.

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