BEIRUT (AP) — Syria decried a U.S. missile strike early Friday on a government-controlled air base where U.S. officials say the Syrian military launched a deadly chemical attack earlier this week. Syria called the operation “an aggression” that killed at least six people. Rebels welcomed the U.S. operation.
The U.S. strike drew quick reactions from the friends and foes of the Syrian government. They also appeared to cause a deeper dent in already strained U.S.-Russian relations.
Saudi Arabia, which supports the Syrian opposition, welcomed the attack, calling it a “courageous decision” by Trump. Iran, which supports the other side of the six-year war, condemned the strike, describing “unilateral action” as “dangerous.”
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Ghasemi warned the strikes would “strengthen terrorists,” further complicating the situation in Syria. Shiite Iran and majority Sunni Saudi Arabia have been locked in a power struggle over influence in Syria and elsewhere in the region.
The bombing represents Trump’s most dramatic military order since taking office and thrusts the U.S. administration deeper into the complex Syrian conflict. The Obama administration threatened to attack Assad’s forces for previous chemical weapons attacks, but never followed through. Trump called on “all civilized nations” to join the U.S. in seeking an end to the carnage in Syria.
About 60 U.S. Tomahawk missiles hit the Shayrat air base, southeast of Homs, a small installation with two runways, where aircraft often take off to bomb targets in northern and central Syria. The U.S. missiles hit at 3:45 a.m. Friday morning and targeted the base’s airstrips, hangars, control tower and ammunition areas, U.S. officials said.
They were fired from two warships in the Mediterranean Sea, in retaliation for Tuesday’s deadly chemical attack that officials said used chlorine mixed with a nerve agent, possibly sarin.
The Syrian military said at least six people were killed and several wounded. A Syrian opposition monitor put the death toll at four, including a general and three soldiers.
The Kremlin said President Vladimir Putin believes the U.S. strike is an “aggression against a sovereign state in violation of international law.” Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said in Friday’s statement carried by Russian news agencies that Putin believes the U.S. dealt the strikes under “far-fetched pretext.”
“Washington’s move deals a significant blow to the Russia-U.S. relations, which are already in a deplorable shape,” Peskov said. He added that the attack creates a “serious obstacle” for creating an international coalition against terrorism.
Israel’s prime minister welcomed the U.S. attack. Benjamin Netanyahu said that “In both word and action” Trump “sent a strong and clear message” that “the use and spread of chemical weapons will not be tolerated.”
A Syrian opposition group, the Syrian Coalition, welcomed the U.S. attack, saying it puts an end to an age of “impunity” and should be just the beginning.
Major Jamil al-Saleh, a U.S-backed rebel commander whose Hama district in the country’s center was struck by the suspected chemical weapons attack, told AP he hoped the U.S. attack would be a “turning point” in the war that has left more than 400,000 dead.
President Bashar Assad’s government had been under mounting international pressure after the chemical attack, with even key ally Russia saying its support is not unconditional.
Syria rejected the accusations, and blames opposition fighters for stockpiling the chemicals. Moscow had warned against apportioning blame until an investigation has been carried out. Russia’s Defense Ministry said the toxic agents were released when a Syrian airstrike hit a rebel chemical weapons arsenal and munitions factory on the eastern outskirts of Khan Sheikhoun.
Russia has provided military support for the Syrian government since September 2015, turning the balance of power in Assad’s favor. Moscow has used its veto power at the Security Council on several occasions since the civil war began six years ago to prevent sanctions against Damascus.
Trump had said the attack crossed “many, many lines,” and put the blame squarely on Assad’s forces. Speaking Thursday on Air Force One, Trump said the attack “shouldn’t have happened, and it shouldn’t be allowed to happen.”
A survivor of the chemical attack told AP he hopes the U.S. missile attack could help put an end to the government airstrikes, creating a safe area for civilians.
Alaa Alyousef, a 27-year old resident of Khan Sheikhoun, said the U.S. missile attack “alleviates a small part of our sufferings,” but he said he worried it would be “anesthetics” that numbs their pain and only saves face for the international community. AlYousef said the U.S. is capable of “paralyzing” Syrian warplanes.
“What good is a strike on Shayart air base alone while we have more than 15 other air bases,” he said. Alyousef lost at least 25 relatives in this week’s gruesome chemical attack in Khan Sheikhoun.
Earlier, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had said he hopes Trump will take military action, adding that Ankara would be prepared to do “whatever falls on us” to support possible military action.
At the United Nations, the U.S. had hoped for a vote Thursday evening on a Security Council resolution it drafted with Britain and France that would have condemned Syria’s suspected use of chemical weapons — but it was canceled because of differences among the 15 members.
The chemical weapons attack happened in Syria’s Idlib province, which straddles the Turkish border. The Turkish government — a close ally of Syria’s rebels — set up a decontamination center at a border crossing in Hatay province, where the victims were treated initially.
Turkish officials said nearly 60 victims of the attack were brought to Turkey for treatment and three of them died.
Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag said autopsies determined that a chemical weapon was used.
The Turkish Health Ministry said later that “according to the results of the first analysis, there were findings suggesting that the patients were exposed to chemical substance (sarin).”
Associated Press writers Albert Aji in Damascus and Jon Gambrell in Dubai contributed to this report.
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