WASHINGTON – A broad coalition of world leaders who for months criticized US President Donald Trump as an erratic force sang his praises over the weekend, grateful his administration chose to act where his predecessor would not in striking Syrian President Bashar Assad for his use of chemical weapons against innocents.But Russia, which remains Assad’s top patron and a critical player in the civil war against him, warned that US action brought the two nuclear powers within “an inch” of war, and is said to be considering military steps that would escalate the conflict.Leaders from Israel, Britain, France, Germany, Ukraine, Poland, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Australia and Canada all praised the attack as a proportional and justified response to an exceptional war crime.
The US struck Syria’s Shayrat airfield early Friday morning with five dozen American Tomahawk missiles fired from two warships in the Mediterranean Sea, responding to a sarin gas attack launched from that air base against civilians in Idlib province three days earlier.It was the first intentional American strike against Assad’s forces and infrastructure since the uprising against his rule broke out in 2011.“This particular strike that was carried out on the air base from which the chemical weapons attack was launched was very deliberately considered by the president,” US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said on Friday. “It is a response that we believe is both proportional and appropriate. And as we said last night, we will monitor Syria’s response to that strike in terms of whether they attack our own forces or coalition forces, or whether we detect that they are considering mobilizing to take [sic] additional chemical weapons attacks.“At this point,” Tillerson continued, “the future will be guided by how we see their reaction.”The strike took out select assets at one air base – including 20 Syrian jets – while leaving the airstrips intact. Syrian television boasted on Friday that planes were already taking off from the base not 24 hours later. And Syria continues to run five additional air bases, which remain fully operational.Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Tillerson spoke by phone on Saturday, with Lavrov pointing out that “an attack on a country whose government fights terrorism only plays into the hands of extremists, creates additional threats to regional and global security,” the Russian ministry said.The US attack is unlikely to lead to the cancellation of Tillerson’s planned visit to Moscow this week, the head of the Russian lower house of parliament’s international affairs committee said on Friday.“I don’t think this will impact Tillerson’s visit; we need to restore dialogue. We should welcome Tillerson, exchange views and try and talk sense into Washington,” Leonid Slutsky told the Russia 24 television channel, Interfax reported.“That’s much better than hiding behind walls,” he said.The chemical assault on the town of Khan Sheikhoun, which killed 74 civilians and maimed more than 550, was “without a doubt” perpetrated by Assad regime forces, Western intelligence agencies say.Pentagon officials said that during the counter-strike, they had to take care not to accidentally hit what they identified as a cache of weaponized sarin stored at the Syrian air base.US defense and intelligence officials are investigating whether the Russian military – which operates out of the facility – were complicit in Tuesday’s event, after discovering that a Russian drone struck a hospital treating victims of the initial attack. Washington believes the hospital strike might have been an attempt to cover up evidence of Assad’s use of chemical weapons.Democrats and Republicans praised Trump for his action.But Tehran accused the US president of standing with Islamic State extremists, and Moscow warned of an aggressive response.Despite receiving one hour’s notice from Washington that an attack was coming, Russia decided not to activate its sophisticated missile defense systems on the night of the US strike. Now Moscow says it will be increasing its missile and air defenses around Syria, suggesting that future US strikes will not be tolerated.Russia also raised the specter of direct military confrontation with the US, warning that the American attack brought the two parties “within an inch” of war. Stoking those fears, Moscow has officially shut down a “deconfliction” channel with Washington set up at Russia’s request in order to prevent midair clashes between Russian forces and US-led coalition forces fighting Islamic State.After an emergency defense intelligence briefing held for senators on Capitol Hill, Sen.Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut) said there was reason for serious concern that Russia and Syria might retaliate against US forces on the ground.“This move by Washington has dealt a serious blow to Russian- US relations, which are already in a poor state,” President Vladimir Putin’s office said in a statement, claiming the Syrian Army “has no chemical weapons.”Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said that Trump’s actions “significantly increased” the chances of direct conflict, and that Moscow had no doubt the strike “was carried out for the benefit of ISIS and other terrorist organizations.”But on Thursday night US time, from his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida, Trump said the operation was a gut decision based on his outrage over the use of chemical weapons on young children.“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,” Trump added.Trump’s strike was praised by former Obama administration officials, many of whom were frustrated with the former president for his failure to strike Syria after a massive chemical attack in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta in 2013. That attack killed 1,400 people, including 500 children.At that time, Barack Obama said that Congress should weigh in before he engaged in military action against a sovereign government. His secretary of state, John Kerry, told senators that Obama’s plan was for an “unbelievably small” operation that would last roughly 10 hours, targeting several air bases and command centers.Republican and Democratic members of Congress roundly praised Trump for sending a decisive message, while collectively warning him against carrying out a sustained campaign without congressional approval.In particular, Democrats called on the White House to present a comprehensive policy plan for Syria in the coming weeks, and suggested that a prolonged operation against the Syrian regime would require the president seek a congressional authorization for the use of military force.“His actions were very clear under Article 2 [of the US Constitution] in our nation’s national security – there’s very important national security interests in the region, stability, and obviously there’s a huge humanitarian component to this,” White House press secretary Sean Spicer told reporters gathered in Florida. “I think it sends a very strong signal not just to Syria but throughout the world.”
Aftermath of suspected chemical gas attack in Idlib , Syria on April 4, 2017 (REUTERS)