WASHINGTON (AP) – The United States, France and Britain launched military strikes in Syria to punish President Bashar Assad for an apparent chemical attack against civilians and to deter him from doing it again, US officials said.
Russian President Vladimir Putin denounced the raids as aggression that will make the humanitarian crisis in Syria worse and called for an emergency meeting of the United Nations’ Security Council.
Putin added that the strike had a “destructive influence on the entire system of international relations.”
Pentagon officials said the attacks targetted the heart of Assad’s programmes to develop and produce chemical weapons.
Syrian television reported that Syria’s air defences, which are substantial, responded to the attack.
Defence Secretary Jim Mattis said there were no reports of US losses in what he described as a heavy but carefully limited assault.
President Donald Trump said the US is prepared to sustain economic, diplomatic and military pressure on Assad until he ends what the president called a criminal pattern of killing his own people with internationally banned chemical weapons.
“The evil and the despicable attack left mothers and fathers, infants and children, thrashing in pain and gasping for air.
“These are not the actions of a man; they are crimes of a monster instead,” Trump said.
Putin yesterday reaffirmed Russia’s view that a purported chemical attack in the Syrian town of Douma that prompted the strike was a fake.
Putin added that Russian military experts who inspected Douma found no trace of the attack.
He criticised the US and its allies for launching the strike without waiting for inspectors from the international chemical weapons watchdog to visit the area.
Mattis said the assault was a “one-time shot,” so long as Assad does not repeat his use of chemical weapons. The strikes were carried out by manned aircraft and from ships that launched cruise missiles from the Mediterranean Sea.
Mattis disclosed that the US had not yet confirmed that the most recent suspected Syrian chemical weapons attack, on April 7 in the Damascus suburb of Douma, included the use of sarin gas. He said at least one chemical was used – chlorine, which also has legitimate industrial uses and had not previously triggered a US military response.
He said the targets selected by US, British and French officials were meant to minimise civilian casualties.
“This is difficult to do in a situation like this,” he said, in light of the volatility of chemical agents.
Defence officials from the countries involved in the attack gave different accounts of how much warning was given to the Russians, Syria’s powerful ally.
Gen Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the US did not coordinate targets with or notify the Russian government of the strikes, beyond normal airspace “de-confliction” communications. But the description from an ally described things differently.
French Defence Minister Florence Parly said that “with our allies, we ensured that the Russians were warned ahead of time.”