President Donald Trump has declared ‘Mission Accomplished’ for a US-led allied missile attack on Syria’s chemical weapons program, but the Pentagon says the pummelling of three chemical-related facilities left enough others intact to enable the Assad government to use banned weapons against civilians if it chooses.
‘A perfectly executed strike,’ Trump tweeted on Saturday after US, French and British warplanes and ships launched more than 100 missiles nearly unopposed by Syrian air defences. ‘Could not have had a better result. Mission Accomplished!’
The nighttime Syria assault was carefully limited to minimise civilian casualties and avoid direct conflict with Syria’s key ally, Russia, but confusion arose over the extent to which Washington warned Moscow in advance. The Pentagon said it gave no explicit warning. The US ambassador in Moscow, John Huntsman, said in a video, ‘Before we took action, the United States communicated with’ Russia to ‘reduce the danger of any Russian or civilian casualties’.
Dana W. White, the chief Pentagon spokeswoman, said to her knowledge no one in the Defense Department communicated with Moscow in advance, other than the acknowledged use of a military-to-military hotline that has routinely helped minimise the risk of US-Russian collisions or confrontations in Syrian airspace. Officials said this did not include giving Russian advance notice of where or when allied airstrikes would happen.
Russia and Iran called the use of force by the US and its allies a ‘military crime’ and ‘act of aggression’. The UN Security Council met to debate the strikes, but rejected a Russian resolution calling for condemnation of the ‘aggression’ by the three Western allies.
Trump’s UN ambassador, Nikki Haley, told the session that the president has made it clear that if Assad uses poison gas again, ‘the United States is locked and loaded’.
Assad denies he has used chemical weapons, and the Trump administration has yet to present hard evidence of what it says precipitated the allied missiles attack: a chlorine gas attack on civilians in Douma on April 7. The US says it suspects that sarin gas also was used.
The strikes ‘successfully hit every target,’ White told reporters at the Pentagon. The military said there were three targets: the Barza chemical weapons research and development site in the Damascus area, a chemical weapons storage facility near Homs and a chemical weapons ‘bunker’ a few miles from the second target.
The US-led operation won broad Western support. The NATO alliance gave its full backing; NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said in Brussels that the attack was about ensuring that chemical weapons cannot be used with impunity.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel called the attack ‘necessary and appropriate’.
A global chemical warfare watchdog group, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, said its fact-finding mission would go as planned in Douma.
Russian leader Vladimir Putin reaffirmed the Kremlin’s scepticism about the allies’ Douma claim, saying Russian military experts had found no trace of the attack. He criticised the US and its allies for launching the strike without waiting for international inspectors to complete their visit to the area.
But British Prime Minister Theresa May said there was little doubt the Syrian government used a barrel bomb to deliver the chemicals at Douma. ‘No other group’ could have carried out that attack, May said, adding that the allies’ use of force was ‘right and legal’.