WASHINGTON -- Five dozen American Tomahawk missiles were fired from the Mediterranean Sea at Syria's al-Shayrat airfield in the early hours of Friday morning, fundamentally changing the dynamics of Syria's protracted and bloody civil war.
President Donald Trump ordered US forces to strike an airbase that played host to the very planes which earlier in the week laid chemical siege to a civilian town in Idlib province. That attack, which Western powers say was conducted over several hours by air forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad, killed 74 people and incapacitating over 550.
Trump's operation was an unprecedented American assault against the embattled Assad government, now in its sixth year of civil war with over fifty rebel and terrorist groups. Over 500,000 civilians have been killed since an uprising first began against him in 2011, and over 10 million Syrians have been displaced from their homes.
Trump was disturbed by the images of innocent children killed in Assad's attack, and felt compelled to respond, he told the American people in an evening address.
"Babies were cruelly murdered at this very barbaric attack. No child of God should ever suffer such horror," Trump said. "Tonight I ordered a targeted military strike on the airfield in Syria from where the chemical attack was launched. It is in this vital national security interest of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons."
Assad "choked out the lives of helpless men, women and children," he said, withholding comment on his plans to continuing striking Assad targets.
The governments of Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Poland and Australia supported the president's move, as did Saudi Arabia and Israel, which issued laudatory statements overnight.
Israel's ambassador to the United Nations, Danny Danon, told The Jerusalem Post that the government "fully supports our American allies and their strong stance against the Assad regime."
"The use of chemical weapons against innocent children was pure evil," Danon said. "The international community must not remain silent in the face of these crimes against humanity."
The European Union also expressed support, with its council president, Donald Tusk, characterizing the US strike as a show of "needed resolve against barbaric chemical attacks."
Russian media claimed that nine Syrian warplanes were destroyed in the attack, which occurred at 4:40 am local time. Two US warships fired 59 missiles at the sight, the Pentagon said.
A Defense Department spokesman said the attack was in America's vital national security interest.
"Initial indications are that this strike has severely damaged or destroyed Syrian aircraft and support infrastructure and equipment at Shayrat Airfield, reducing the Syrian government's ability to deliver chemical weapons," Navy Capt. Jeff Davis said. "The use of chemical weapons against innocent people will not be tolerated."
While the Syrian regime said that Trump's attack left substantial damage, Russian officials slammed the operation as "extremely ineffective" militarily, noting that Syria has five additional airstrips beyond the site at Shayrat.
Moscow responded angrily on Friday morning by suspending a channel of "deconfliction" between US and Russian air assets, increasing Syria's air defenses and warning the Trump administration against further attacks.
"This move by Washington has dealt a serious blow to Russian-US relations, which are already in a poor state," the Kremlin said in an official statement. "The Syrian Army has no chemical weapons."
Yet the Pentagon said its operation on al-Shayrat airbase required precision because the base had been used to warehouse weaponized sarin– a chemical toxin that Moscow had promised to remove from Syria in 2013, in a deal brokered by the Obama administration.
Then-president Barack Obama came close to striking Assad at that time, sending five destroyers and an aircraft carrier to the Syrian coast after a chemical attack killed 1,400 people in a Damascus suburb. But he ultimately stood down after Russia offered to broker a deal ridding Assad of the largest chemical weapons stockpile in the Middle East.
Moscow said it would work with the Assad government to ensure the agreement was upheld. Yet Tuesday's attack showed the Trump administration that the 2013 deal was flawed, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said on Thursday night in Florida.
"Either Russia has been complicit, or Russia has been incompetent," Tillerson said. "Clearly Russia has failed in its responsibility."
The Russians were operating out of Shayrat, raising questions over how much they knew about Assad's stockpile and use of the chemicals.
"Numerous previous attempts at changing Assad’s behavior have all found and failed very dramatically. As a result, the refugee crisis continues to deepen and the region continues to destabilize, threatening the United States and its allies," Trump added. "Tonight I call on all civilized nations to join us in seeking to end the slaughter and bloodshed in Syrian and also to end terrorism of all kinds and all types. We asked for God’s wisdom as we face the challenge of our very troubled world."
Trump consulted America's allies before conducting the strike, according to senior administration officials, who said the White House also gave Moscow advanced notice of an attack.
This morning's stunning development changes the dynamics of the war, raising the specter of wide-scale escalation and increased US involvement. Should Trump proceed with future strikes, he would be challenging both the Syrian regime as well as the government in Moscow, which has invested significant resources in propping up Damascus.
Trump is not only reversing former president Barack Obama’s policy against direct involvement in the conflict, but his own stated positions as a private citizen and a presidential candidate. Trump long cautioned against getting mired in Syria, and publicly warned Obama against taking military action after the 2013 attack.
Trump may choose to proceed with additional attacks targeting more Syrian airfields, or may alternatively choose to escalate the conflict, targeting Syria's broader military infrastructure.
"The United States should lead an international coalition to ground Assad’s air force," Senators John McCain (R-Arizona) and Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) said on Thursday. "This capability provides Assad a strategic advantage in his brutal slaughter of innocent civilians, both through the use of chemical weapons as well as barrel bombs, which kill far more men, women and children on a daily basis."
"Ultimately, the grounding of Assad’s air force can and should be part of a new comprehensive strategy to end the conflict in Syria," they added.
Trump's attack against the Assad regime came 77 days into his presidency.
"The most significant implication of tonight’s attack is that it signals a fundamental shift in US policy from the Obama to the Trump administration, the first major demonstration of a shift since inauguration," Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told the Post. "The White House did not seem interested in reaching some diplomatic resolution of this incident even using the threat of force to elicit some political gain but rather appeared committed to sending a message that such heinous behavior will be punished— unilaterally by US action, if necessary."
"This marks a huge course correction for US policy toward Russia under the Trump administration," Satloff added, "and in terms of Iran, marks the first substantive example of the US pushing back at Iran’s long reach for influence throughout the Middle East."
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