Russian President Vladimir Putin condemned the U.S. strike as an “act of aggression against a sovereign state” and suspended an accord that had prevented direct confrontation between the nuclear superpowers in Syrian airspace– a response that a think tank tied to the Kremlin called “very risky.” Russia’s military also ordered additional measures to strengthen Syria’s air defenses and protect the country’s “most sensitive” infrastructure assets.
The attack, Trump’s first on Assad’s forces, risks further inflaming a six-year civil war that’s killed an estimated 400,000 people and displaced 11 million. What started as a crackdown on protests in the capital Damascus has become an international conflict involving Russia, Iran and Turkey, as well as multiple extremist groups and militias backed by regional powers such as Saudi Arabia.
“Tonight I ordered a targeted military strike on the airfield in Syria from where the chemical attack was launched,” Trump told reporters Thursday at his Florida club, where he hosted Chinese President Xi Jinping. “No child of God should ever suffer such horror.”
The predawn aerial assault was aimed at planes, depots and air-defense systems at the Shayrat Airfield, according to the Pentagon. The field, between Damascus and Homs, was hit with 59 Raytheon Co. Tomahawk missiles fired from the USS Porter and USS Ross, two destroyers in the Mediterranean.
The rocket barrage jolted financial markets, with oil jumping more than 2 percent in New York and London to the highest in more than a month. The yen and gold advanced, while the Russian ruble and Turkish lira weakened.
Syrian state television put the death toll from the U.S. bombings at six, while a U.K.-based opposition monitoring group, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said tens of government troops were wounded. Officials in Damascus said earlier that Syrian pilots blew up what turned out to be a rebel-controlled chemical weapons stockpile on April 4. Russian officials on Wednesday said it was too soon to assign blame for the deadly incident.
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson blasted Russia’s support for Assad and said Moscow hadn’t kept up its end of an agreement reached four years ago that was supposed to clear Syria of chemical weapons.
“Clearly Russia has failed to deliver on that commitment from 2013,” Tillerson, who’s scheduled to go to Moscow for talks next week, told reporters in Florida after Trump spoke. “So either Russia has been complicit or Russia has been incompetent in its ability to deliver.”
Tillerson said other governments in the region were supportive of the U.S. action, which he called a “proportional” response directed at facilities used in the chemical attack. The attack also won the support of leaders in Europe.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande, who’ve both been critical of Trump, blamed Assad’s killing of civilians for the U.S. response, in a joint statement released after they spoke by phone Friday. Britain said it “fully supports” Trump’s decision.
Russia will now have to tread even more carefully to keep the war in Syria from spinning out of control, according to Andrei Kortunov, who runs the Russian International Affairs Council, a research group set up by the Kremlin.
The missiles were launched just as Trump wrapped up his dinner with Xi at the president’s Florida resort, their first face-to-face meeting. The main topics include how to respond to North Korea’s attempts to refine missile and nuclear weapons technology. Trump and Tillerson have made clear that the U.S. has lost its patience with attempts to negotiate with North Korea.
China is the only nation with leverage on North Korea, and Trump’s decision to strike quickly in Syria is likely to color their discussions.
“The Chinese now perhaps more than before will realize that this president can decide to take dramatic action,” said Dennis Wilder, who was senior director for Asia on former President George W. Bush’s National Security Council and a China military analyst at the Central Intelligence Agency. “It ups the stakes for the Chinese on North Korea.”
China’s foreign ministry called on all parties involved in Syria to “stay calm” and do everything they can to prevent “an escalation of tensions.”
The decision to attack marked a stark reversal for Trump. During the election campaign, he faulted past U.S. leaders for getting embroiled in conflicts in the Middle East. But the president said this week that the deaths of children among the more than 70 killed in the gas assault, images of which were broadcast worldwide, crossed “beyond red lines” and changed his thinking.
“It was a slow and brutal death for so many,” Trump said. “Even beautiful babies were cruelly murdered at this very barbaric attack.”
Back when Obama was deciding whether to attack in Syria, Trump repeatedly tweeted that the U.S. shouldn’t get bogged down there, and that Obama shouldn’t act without approval from Congress. Trump didn’t get such a formal authorization vote before Thursday night’s strike.
Senator Ben Cardin, the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, said the action was “a clear signal that the United States will stand up for internationally accepted norms and rules against the use of chemical weapons.” But he also said in a statement that “any longer-term or larger military operation” will need to be done in consultation with Congress, a position echoed by House Democrat leader Nancy Pelosi.
Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, who’ve long urged action against Assad, said the strikes “sent an important message the United States will no longer stand idly by as Assad, aided and abetted by Putin’s Russia, slaughters innocent Syrians with chemical weapons and barrel bombs.”
The U.S. has high confidence that the attack used a chemical nerve gas consistent with sarin, according to an American official who asked not to be identified discussing the findings.
But support for Trump wasn’t universal. Michigan Representative Justin Amash, a member of the conservative Republican Freedom Caucus, said in a tweet that the attack was “an act of war. Atrocities in Syria cannot justify departure from the Constitution, which vests in Congress power to commence war.”
At the United Nations, diplomats privately debated a resolution that would condemn the poison-gas attack and demand access to Syrian air bases by UN investigators. Russia would probably veto that measure after putting forward a separate measure which wouldn’t compel Syria to provide such access.
At the Security Council on Wednesday, U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley stood up at her desk to show diplomats photos of dying children gasping for air. She accused Russia of pushing a “false narrative” that blames rebel forces for the attack, and issued a new warning.
The task of U.S. military planners was made more complicated by the presence of Russian forces that are in Syria to support Assad against rebel groups that include Islamic State and al-Qaeda, as well as some militias backed by the U.S. The Pentagon notified the Russians before the attack, and U.S. military planners “took precautions to minimize risk to Russian or Syrian personnel located at the airfield,” spokesman Captain Jeff Davis said.
Russian forces so far have not been placed at risk by the U.S. actions, according to Frants Klintsevich, deputy head of the defense and security committee in the upper house of parliament.
“But if we see a threat to our bases or our servicemen, we of course will put the airspace in order,” Klintsevich said by phone. Russia has advanced air-defense systems in Syria to protect military assets, including a port and an air base. — Neal Bhai Reports