The US, UK and France have launched air strikes against what they allege are Syrian chemical weapons facilities in response to chemical weapons attack in a Damascus suburb a week ago.
The Pentagon said the air strikes, which began at 4 am Syrian time (2 am GMT), involved planes and ship-launched missiles, more than 100 projectiles in all. Officials named three targets: a scientific research centre in Damascus, a chemical weapons storage facility west of Homs, and another storage site and command post nearby.
“Right now, we have no additional attacks planned” the US defence secretary, James Mattis, said. “This is a one-time shot.”
However, in a televised address from the White House earlier to announce the strikes, Donald Trump said the US and its allies would strike again if there were more chemical weapons attacks by the regime of Bashar al-Assad.
“We are prepared to sustain this response until the Syrian regime stops its use of prohibited chemical agents,” he said. Referring to last Saturday’s chemical weapons attack reported to have killed over 70 people, Trump said. “These are not actions of a man, they are crimes of a monster instead.”
After Trump finished his seven-minute address, Theresa May and Emmanuel Macron made separate announcements of British and French participation, stressing that the strikes were limited to Syrian regime chemical facilities, and had no wider goals.
May said there was no alternative to the action the three countries were taking.
Explosions were reported in Damascus moments after Trump’s address. Later a Syrian official said all sites had been evacuated “days ago” after a warning from Russia.
The Russian ambassador to Washington, Anatoly Antonov, issued a statement threatening “consequences”.
“A pre-designed scenario is being implemented,” Antonov’s statement said. “Again, we are being threatened. We warned that such actions will not be left without consequences. All responsibility for them rests with Washington, London and Paris.”
None of the air strikes hit zones where Russian air defence systems protect the Russian bases of Tartus and Hmeimim, Russian news agencies cited the ministry of defence as saying.
The Syrian military its air defences brought down most of the missiles launched during what it called a campaign of “tripartite aggression”. It said missiles targeting a military installation near Homs were disrupted and exploded, injuring three civilians, the first allegation of civilian casualties from the strikes.
The Pentagon said in the immediate aftermath of the strikes that while there had been some Syrian air defence fire, it was not clear whether Russian air defences in Syria had gone into action.
“So there is no practicable alternative to the use of force to degrade and deter the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime. This is not about intervening in a civil war. It is not about regime change.”
Trump addressed some of his remarks to the Syrian regime’s principal external backers, Russia and Iran.
“What kind of nation wants to be associated with the mass murder of men, women and children?” he asked. “Russia must decide if it will continue down this dark path or join civilised nations as a force for peace.”
The decision to launch air strikes in response to last Saturday’s chemical weapons attack in a rebel-held district of Damascus was fraught with risks. There are Russian and Iranian forces in bases across Syrian and substantial Russian air defences in the west of the country. Russian officials had threatened to use those defences.
The US defence secretary, James Mattis, had expressed concerns that air strikes could lead a situation “escalating out of control”. The US chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, General Joseph Dunford, said that the targets had been chosen very carefully.
After The Strikes
As light dawned in Damascus on Saturday, hundreds of Syrians gathered at landmark squares, honking their car horns, flashing victory signs and waving Syrian, Russian and Iranian flags in scenes of defiance. “We are your men, Bashar,” they shouted.
Syrian state TV broadcast live from Omayyad square where a large crowd of civilians mixed with men in uniforms, including an actor, lawmakers and other figures. “Good morning steadfastness,” one broadcaster said.
“Good souls will not be humiliated,” Syria’s presidency tweeted after the airstrikes began. Syrian state media also released a short video apparently showing Bashar al-Assad arriving to work at the presidential palace.
This story originally appeared in The Guardian.