WASHINGTON (Reuters) - US, British and French forces pounded Syria with air strikes early on Saturday in response to a poison gas attack that killed dozens of people last week.
US President Donald Trump announced the military action from the White House late on Friday. As he spoke, explosions rocked Damascus. Trump said he was prepared to sustain the response until Assad’s government stopped its use of chemical weapons.
British Prime Minister Theresa May and French President Emmanuel Macron said the UK and France had joined in the attack.
Syrian state media said the attack would fail and called it a “flagrant violation of international law.” Russia’s ambassador to the United States said Moscow had warned that “such actions will not be left without consequences”.
In a televised address from the White House, Trump said he had ordered US armed forces to launch “precision strikes” associated with Assad’s chemical weapons capabilities.
At least six loud explosions were heard in Damascus in the early hours of Saturday and smoke was seen rising over the Syrian capital, a Reuters witness said. A second witness said the Barzah district of Damascus had been hit in the strikes. Barzah is the location of a major Syrian scientific research centre.
At a Pentagon briefing, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford said the targets included a Syrian research facility and a chemical weapons storage facility.
The combined US, British and French assault appeared to be more intense than the strike Trump ordered almost exactly a year ago against a Syrian airbase in retaliation for an earlier chemical weapons attack that Washington attributed to Assad.
Defence Secretary Jim Mattis said twice as many weapons were used in the strikes on Saturday compared to last April’s strike.
Mattis, who US officials said had earlier warned in internal debates against too large an attack that would risk confrontation with Russia, described the strikes as a “one time shot” to dissuade Assad from “doing this again.”
Asked what chemicals were used in the weekend attack, Mattis confirmed that chlorine gas had been used and did not rule out the nerve agent sarin.
Dunford said that manned US aircraft were used in the military operation and that the strike was planned to minimize the risk of casualties among Russia’s military forces in Syria. A US official told Reuters that Tomahawk cruise missiles also were involved.
Syrian air defences shot down 13 missiles fired in the US-led attack on the country on Saturday, Syrian state TV said. The missiles had been shot down in the Kiswah area south of the capital Damascus, it said.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said a total of three scientific research centres had been hit in the attacks, two in Damascus and one in the Homs area, in addition to military bases in Damascus.
In his televised address, Trump said, “The purpose of our actions is to establish a strong deterrent against the production, spread and use of chemical weapons.”
“To Iran and to Russia, I ask, what kind of a nation wants to be associated with the mass murder of innocent men, women and children?” Trump said.
UK Prime Minister Theresa May said she had authorized British armed forces “to conduct coordinated and targeted strikes to degrade the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons capability.” She described it as a “limited and targeted strike” aimed at minimizing civilian casualties.
A US-led attack on Syria will be seen as limited if it is now over and there is no second round of strikes, said a senior official in the regional alliance that has supported President Bashar al-Assad in the Syrian war.
“If it is finished, and there is no second round, it will be considered limited,” the official told Reuters.