US, France, Britain launch strikes on Syria
DAMASCUS - President Donald Trump triumphantly declared "Mission Accomplished!" on Saturday following a US-led missile assault on the Syrian regime and warned another attack could follow if Damascus were to unleash more chemical weapons.
The combined US-French-British operation, which saw more than 100 cruise missiles smash into three chemical weapons facilities early Saturday, earned quick scorn from Russia, which pushed for a vote at the UN Security Council condemning the strikes.
Trump and his allies ordered the pre-dawn mission in response to a suspected chemical weapons attack a week ago on the rebel-held town of Douma that left more than 40 people dead.
Both the regime of Syria's Bashar al-Assad and its ally Russia have denied all responsibility for the April 7 attack, and Moscow slammed the "aggressive actions" of the Western coalition, but it has not yet responded militarily.
US Ambassador Nikki Haley warned her UN counterparts that although the mission was designed as a one-off, that did not preclude further action against Assad.
"I spoke to the president this morning and he said: 'If the Syrian regime uses this poisonous gas again, the United States is locked and loaded,'" Haley said at emergency Security Council talks.
"When our president draws a red line, our president enforces the red line."
- ' Perfectly executed' -
The sounds of massive explosions rang out across Damascus just before dawn Saturday, ushering in 45 minutes of explosions and the roar of warplanes.
"A perfectly executed strike last night. Thank you to France and the United Kingdom for their wisdom and the power of their fine Military," Trump tweeted early Saturday.
"Could not have had a better result. Mission Accomplished!"
Trump drew some criticism for his choice of words: former president George W. Bush notoriously stood on an aircraft carrier just a few weeks after the initial Iraq invasion in 2003 in front of a "Mission Accomplished" banner.
"We met our objectives. We hit the sites, the heart of the chem weapons program. So it was mission accomplished," Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White later said.
The targets included a scientific research facility near Damascus, a chemical weapons storage facility west of the city of Homs, and a third location near Homs that contained both a command post and a chemical weapons equipment storage facility, the US military said.
The facilities hit had however reportedly been evacuated in recent days.
Syrian state media reported only three people injured, while Russia's defense ministry said there were "no victims" among Syrian civilians and military personnel.
According to US officials, the operation comprised three US destroyers, a French frigate and a US submarine. The vessels were located in the Red Sea, the Gulf and the eastern Mediterranean.
A top Pentagon official, Lieutenant General Kenneth McKenzie, said the action would set back Syria's chemical weapons program "for years" but he noted a "residual" element remained.
"I'm not going to say that they are going to be unable to continue to conduct a chemical attack in the future," McKenzie said.
"I suspect, however, they'll think long and hard about it based on the activities of last night."
- 'Crimes of a monster' -
"The evil and the despicable attack left mothers and fathers, infants and children thrashing in pain and gasping for air," Trump said as he announced the joint action against Assad's regime from the White House late Friday, in a primetime televised address
"These are not the actions of a man. They are crimes of a monster instead."
The strikes were the biggest foreign military action so far against Syria's regime.
US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis called the strikes a "one-time shot" with no additional military action planned for now.
Assad, who has denied ever using chemical weapons against his opponents, responded to the strikes with a defiant vow.
"This aggression will only make Syria and its people more determined to keep fighting and crushing terrorism in every inch of the country," he said.
Assad's key ally Iran also slammed the attack, with supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei describing Western leaders as "criminals."
Iran's regional foe Saudi Arabia, however, expressed its full support, saying the strikes were a response to "regime crimes" against civilians.
"Saudi Arabia fully supports the strikes launched by the United States, France and Britain against Syria because they represent a response to the regime's crimes," a foreign ministry statement said.
Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states have been key backers of Syrian opposition groups, including the Islamist Jaish al-Islam, which held the Syrian town of Douma where the suspected toxic gas attack on April 7 took place.
Syria's foreign ministry lashed out at Riyadh, saying it was not surprised to see it back the attacks on military installations.
"It is not strange that the Wahhabist regime supports the tripartite aggression on Syria, especially... after the surrender of its terrorist tool, Jaish al-Islam," a ministry source said, according to state television.
The Western states' targets appeared to steer well clear of any Russian personnel or equipment in Syria, where Moscow launched a military intervention in support of Assad in 2015.
The Russian military claimed Syrian air defense systems had intercepted 71 Western missiles, though the Pentagon flatly dismissed the claim and said all missiles hit their targets.
- Rally in Damascus -
In central Damascus, dozens of Syrians arrived on bicycles, on foot and in cars spray painted with the red, white, and black colors of the Syrian flag, blaring patriotic tunes.
Nedher Hammoud, 48, claimed to have seen missiles "being shot down like flies."
"Let them do what they want, kill who they want... History will record that Syria shot down missiles -- and not just missiles. It shot down American arrogance."
Despite the strikes, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons said it was still planning on carrying out its investigation into the Douma attack.
Thousands of rebels and civilians have since been bussed out of the town under a Russian-brokered deal. Syrian internal security forces entered Douma on Saturday and were poised to declare their control over it within "hours."
Jaish al-Islam, the group that held Douma, said it only abandoned the town because of the chemical attack.
- UN chief urges restraint -
The Russian military had vowed to respond to any attack, and President Vladimir Putin's administration had repeatedly warned Trump was taking America down a dangerous path.
Despite the warnings, Washington, Paris and London insisted their own secret intelligence belied Assad's guilt. A US spokeswoman said Friday the allies had "proof."
UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres asked for restraint in comments Saturday before the Security Council.
"At this critical juncture, I call on all member states to act consistently with the charter of the United Nations and with international law, including the norms against chemical weapons," he said.