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Strikes aim to cripple Syria chemical programme

120 missiles target centre used to develop chemical, biological agents; chemical weapons storage facilities

Image Credit: AFP
A cruise missile is being launched from a French military vessel in the Mediterranean Sea towards targets in Syria on Friday night.
Gulf News

Washington: US and allied warships and warplanes in the eastern Mediterranean launched a fiery barrage of missiles at multiple military targets in Syria to punish the Russian-backed regime in Damascus for its alleged use of poison gas against civilians last weekend, President Donald Trump announced.

Trump authorised the punitive attack against Bashar Al Assad’s regime and sought to cripple its chemical and biological weapons facilities with what he called precision air strikes. French and British forces joined the attack, Trump said in a televised address on Friday night.

The Pentagon said about 120 missiles targeted a scientific centre near Damascus that was used for research, development and production of chemical and biological agents; a chemical weapons storage facility west of Homs; and a separate chemical agent storage site and command post near Homs. Officials said no US, French or British casualties were reported.

A perfectly executed strike last night. Thank you to France and the UK for their wisdom and the power of their fine Military. Could not have had a better result. Mission Accomplished!”

 - Donald Trump | US President

“We are prepared to sustain this response until the Syrian regime stops its use of prohibited chemical agents,” Trump said. Loud explosions and air raid sirens were reported in the Syrian capital as he spoke at 9pm in Washington. It was before dawn on Saturday in Damascus.

At a subsequent Pentagon news conference, Defence Secretary James N. Mattis said that no follow-up strikes were planned, calling the attack a “one-time shot” intended to deter Al Assad from using poison gas again.

“Right now we have no additional attacks planned,” he said.

He said Pentagon planners took precautions to try to avoid endangering civilians or any Russian troops in Syria. He said he could not guarantee that the attacks on poison gas stockpiles did not release toxic agents in the air.

US, British and French warplanes apparently fired air-to-ground missiles from hundreds of miles offshore, out of range of Syria’s sophisticated air defence batteries.

That allowed a more ambitious attack, with a more aggressive target list, than last year’s US strike with 59 Tomahawk missiles on a single Syrian airfield in response to a nerve-gas attack.

“Clearly the Al Assad regime did not get the message last year,” Mattis said. “This time our allies and we have struck harder.”

Mattis acknowledged that the US had not confirmed yet that Syria had used sarin or other deadly nerve agents in last Saturday’s attack on a rebel-held town, but said US intelligence had confirmed use of chlorine gas.

We would have preferred an alternative path, but in this case there was none. We cannot allow the use of chemical weapons to become normalised.”

 - Theresa May | UK Prime Minister

“We’re very confident chlorine was used,” Mattis said. “We’re not ruling out sarin right now.”

The British Defence Ministry said in a statement that four Royal Air Force Tornado GR4 warplanes took part in the attack and fired Storm Shadow missiles at a Syrian military base 15 miles west of Homs, near the Lebanon border.

“Very careful scientific analysis was applied to ... maximise the destruction of the stockpiled chemicals and to minimise any risks of contamination to the surrounding area,” the statement said.

Trump promised that the United States would not maintain an indefinite presence in the war-torn region, saying that “no amount of American blood or treasure” can bring stability to the Middle East. “It is a troubled place.”

He called on Russia and Iran, which he said are the chief enablers of the Syrian regime, to relinquish their support. “What kind of a nation wants to be associated with the mass murder of innocent men women and children?” he said, accusing the two countries of “supporting, equipping and financing the criminal Al Assad regime.”

The predawn air assault on Saturday raised concerns of a direct confrontation with Russia, which has an extensive network of ground-to-air missiles in Syria, as well as hundreds of troops and warplanes, and threatened to shoot down any US missiles or planes that it saw as a threat.

US officials have been deeply worried that the strikes could inadvertently kill Russian troops. But General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters that the Pentagon had not given Moscow advance warning of the attack.

The Pentagon used a special communications channel with Moscow to make sure the airspace where the US was launching missiles was clear, Dunford said. In last year’s air strike, the US gave Russia advance warning of the attack in time for Russia to move its troops and equipment out of danger.

I believe this chemical attack took place, I believe my red line was crossed. [Allowing it to go unanswered would be] an immediate danger to the Syrian people and for our collective security.”

 - Emmanuel Macron | French President

The Pentagon’s Central Command, which oversees US military operations in the Middle East, made heavy use of the so-called deconfliction line with Moscow in recent days to gain a better picture of where Russian forces were deployed in Syria and to reassure Moscow that any US strike would target only Syrian military units, facilities and equipment involved in last Saturday’s attack.

Trump’s Twitter posts and comments this week gave Syria time to move aircraft and troops out of likely target areas, and the advance warning made it more likely its advanced air defence batteries could shoot down US cruise missiles or warplanes, complicating the Pentagon’s task of preparing a response.

Syrian state media said regime air defences had successfully intercepted 13 missiles targeting Kisweh in suburban Damascus and the Homs area. There was no independent confirmation.

Syrian casualties weren’t yet known. Syrian regime troops had evacuated airports and primary military airbases in regime-held areas in anticipation of a US air attack, and reportedly moved some Syrian warplanes to Russian-controlled airfields for protection.

Fact-finding teams from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, an international watchdog agency based in The Hague, were expected to arrive in Douma on Saturday to collect evidence on the April 7 attack that left 43 people dead and wounded hundreds more.

US officials said Syrian helicopters dropped gas-filled barrel bombs in Douma, a suburb east of Damascus. Photos and videos showed victims, including children, foaming at the mouth, choking and twitching in agony.

Local medics and rescue workers said some of the victims emitted an odour that suggested chlorine gas had been used. Others showed symptoms, including constriction of the pupils and convulsions, that suggested an illegal nerve agent such as sarin was mixed in.

The rebel-held town fell to Syrian forces after last week’s bombardment, and Russian troops also have entered the area. Thousands of rebels and civilian residents have been evacuated.

Trump had telegraphed the attack early Wednesday in a tweet that taunted Russia as well as Al Assad.

“Russia vows to shoot down any and all missiles fired at Syria. Get ready Russia, because they will be coming, nice and new and ‘smart!’ You shouldn’t be partners with a Gas Killing Animal who kills his people and enjoys it!” Trump wrote.

Trump’s tweet followed a mid-level Russian diplomat’s claim that Russian President Vladimir Putin had authorised shooting down any US missiles aimed at Syria. The Kremlin did not confirm the warning.

“Russia will execute the statement of its president related to any US aggression against Syria, knocking down American missiles and striking at the sources of fire,” Alexander Zasypkin, Russia’s ambassador to Lebanon, told the Lebanese television channel Al Manar.

Russia has disputed claims by the US and its allies that Al Assad’s forces used lethal chemical agents against civilians in Douma.

The air strikes come almost exactly a year after US warships fired 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at a Syrian airbase that US intelligence said was used to carry out a nerve-gas attack that killed about 75 people in the town of Khan Shaikhoun.

In that attack, the Pentagon avoided hitting suspected chemical-agent storage facilities at the Shayrat airbase, for fear of spreading a toxic cloud, targeting planes and hangars there instead. The Pentagon also gave advance notice to Moscow to ensure any Russian personnel at the base could leave before the attack.

The airfield was back in operation soon after, and Al Assad’s regime began using less-lethal chlorine gas against rebel positions.

Before the latest US attack, the Pentagon had raised concerns that it might not have legal justification for an assault because it hasn’t confirmed that Syrian forces used a banned nerve agent.

Use of any lethal chemical agent as a weapon, especially against civilians, is barred under international law, but unlike sarin, chlorine gas is not specifically prohibited by international treaty.

Forensic evidence from alleged victims of the Douma attack, including blood and urine samples, that the US has received through intermediaries indicate the presence of chlorine gas, but evidence that a deadly nerve agent such as sarin also was used is less clear, two officials said on condition of anonymity to discuss internal assessments.

Russia has repeatedly denied that a poison gas attack occurred, saying that gruesome photographs of victims were fake.

On Friday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov went much further, telling a state-run news site that Moscow had “irrefutable evidence” that the gas attack was a “performance” staged by a foreign spy service. He did not identify the country or show any proof for his claim.

But Major General Igor Konashenkov, a spokesman for the Russian Defence Ministry, blamed Britain, telling reporters that London had “direct involvement,” according to Russia’s state news agency.

Konashenkov also said a Syrian medic who claimed to work at Douma’s central hospital said the victims suffered from smoke inhalation, not chemical exposure. He said a “rent-a-mob” had entered the hospital saying there was a chemical weapons attack and had begun washing one another in front of cameras. The medic said he “had not seen a single patient with signs of poisoning with chemicals,” Konashenkov said.

The British Foreign Office dismissed Moscow’s charges as “the latest in a number of ludicrous allegations from Russia, who have also said that no attack ever happened. This simply shows their desperation to pin the blame on anyone but their client: the Assad regime.”

British relations with Moscow already are in a tailspin. Prime Minister Theresa May’s government has accused the Kremlin of trying to murder a former Russian spy and his daughter in southern England with a military-grade nerve agent known as Novichok. The two survived the March 4 poisoning, and Moscow has repeatedly denied responsibility.

The finger-pointing continued during an emergency session of the United Nations Security Council on Friday.

Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the UN, said any military action would be “in defence of a bedrock international norm that benefits all nations.”

She said Al Assad’s forces had used chemical weapons at least 50 times since the Syrian civil war erupted in 2011. She blamed Russia, in part, accusing it of “lies and cover-ups” that have led “to the trashing of all international standards against the use of chemical weapons.”

Russia’s ambassador to the UN, Vassily Nebenzia, fired back, saying the United States’ “irresponsible behaviour” was “unworthy” of its status as a permanent member of the Security Council.

He evoked the bitter memory of when then-Secretary of State Colin Powell held up a test tube as part of his effort to convince the Security Council in March 2003 that the US had ironclad evidence that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussain was building and hiding chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. None was found after the US-led invasion, and the intelligence later was deemed to be faulty.

“You are showing us the same virtual empty test tube now, too,” Nebenzia said.