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US launches missile strikes at Syrian airfield, the spearhead of chemical attack

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US launches missile strikes at Syrian airfield, the spearhead of chemical attack

By By W.J. Hennigan and Tracy Wilkinson / Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

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The Pentagon ordered dozens of cruise missiles against an airfield in central Syria late Thursday in retaliation for a gruesome poison gas attack this week that U.S. officials said was carried out by President Bashar Assad’s forces.

President Donald Trump authorized the attack, the most significant military action of his 11-week presidency, after he was briefed by Secretary of Defense James Mattis in Palm Beach, Fla., where the president is hosting visiting Chinese President Xi Jinping.

“Assad choked out the lives of helpless men, women and children,” Trump said in a televised statement from his Mar-a-Lago retreat. “Even beautiful babies were cruelly murdered at this very barbaric attack. No child of God should ever suffer such horror.”

“Tonight I ordered a targeted military strike on the airfield in Syria from where the chemical attack was launched,” he added. “It is in this vital national security interest of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons.”

The attack marks the first time the U.S. has deliberately targeted Assad’s military in Syria’s multi-sided civil war, now in its seventh year. Until now, the U.S. has focused only on targeting Islamic State militants.

It marked a violent and abrupt reversal of Trump’s previous hands-off stance toward Assad.
In effect, Trump was carrying out the policy that his predecessor, Barack Obama, had nearly executed, but backed away from, in the fall of 2013 after an even more deadly chemical weapons attack on civilians.

At the time, Trump had publicly urged Obama not to strike, saying that to do so without congressional approval would be a mistake.

But people who have spoken to Trump say he was deeply affected by the images of children choking to death as a result of the attack, which Turkish medical authorities, who treated many of the victims, said involved sarin nerve gas.

Trump, himself, said in a brief news conference earlier this week that the attack had caused him to change his views about Assad.

“That crosses many, many lines,” Trump said Wednesday. “Beyond a red line _ many, many lines.”
The strike was carried out by two Navy destroyers patrolling in the eastern Mediterranean Sea, which fired roughly 60 Tomahawk cruise missiles from hundreds of miles offshore, well out of range of Syrian air defenses, officials said.

The Porter, a destroyer that launched Tomahawk missiles during the opening stage of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, is in the region, along with the guided missile destroyer Ross.

The target was a military airfield, Shayrat, northeast of Damascus, that U.S. officials said was used to launch the lethal gas attack in Idlib Province on Tuesday. The field has two runways and a series of hardened shelters.

Targets included aircraft, fuel and weapons depots, and command and control facilities, officials said. Pentagon officials said they were assessing the results of the strikes, which hit the base before dawn Friday in Syria.

The strike was designed to be limited in nature and to damage facilities with minimal casualties, the officials made clear.

“Every precaution was taken to execute this strike with minimal risk to personnel at the airfield,” Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, told reporters. “The strike was a proportional response.”

The Russian military, which operates from the Shayrat base, was warned ahead of time, Davis said, and the area that the Russians are known to have used was carefully not targeted.

The U.S. has no plans for additional strikes for now, he added.

“It will be the regime’s choice if there are any more” military strikes,” Davis said. “And it will be based upon their conduct going forward. We do not tolerate the use of chemical weapons against innocent civilians.”

A “military source” in Syria confirmed the missile strike by the U.S., the Syrian Arab News Agency reported. “One of our air bases in the central region at dawn today was hit with a missile strike by the United States of America, which led to losses.”

It said the attack followed a “propaganda campaign launched by a number of countries” following the incident in Khan Sheikhoun.

The action drew mixed responses from leaders of both parties in the U.S., who have been deeply divided over Syria policy nearly for the length of the country’s civil war.

Members of Congress who have long argued for more direct U.S. military action against Assad, including Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Marco Rubio of Florida, hailed the attack.

House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said the strike “was appropriate and just.”

“These tactical strikes make clear that the Assad regime can no longer count on American inaction as it carries out atrocities against the Syrian people,” he said.

Hillary Clinton, whom Trump defeated in the presidential election, said in an appearance in New York several hours before the strikes were launched that she had long advocated attacking Syria’s airfields.

But other Democrats chided Trump for acting without Congress’ approval.
So did Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky. “While we all condemn the atrocities in Syria, the United States was not attacked,” he said.

“The president needs congressional authorization for military action as required by the Constitution, and I call on him to come to Congress for a proper debate.”

Pentagon officials updated their Syria plans after an emergency meeting of the National Security Council late Wednesday, one day after U.S radar and surveillance systems detected a fixed-wing Syrian aircraft drop bombs near a hospital in the rebel-held area around Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib province, officials said.

Soon after the attack, photos and videos emerged on social media that showed lifeless bodies of children, eyes open, sprawled on the ground beside surviving victims with foam bubbling from their mouths as they gasped for air.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff met Thursday to consider the crisis and top congressional officials were briefed on the plans. The White House national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, was in Palm Beach with Trump.

Whether the strike Thursday will seriously affect Syria’s capabilities remains to be seen.
Airstrikes on the runways that Syrian forces use to launch bombing missions would have only minimal effect, experts said.

Helicopters, which Syrian troops have used to drop improvised “barrel bombs” on civilian targets, can fly from almost anywhere.
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(Molly Hennessy-Fiske of the Los Angeles Times in Irbil, Iraq contributed to this report.)
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US launches missile strikes at Syrian airfield, the spearhead of chemical attack