Washington (United States) (AFP) – President Donald Trump triumphantly declared “Mission Accomplished!” on Saturday following a US-led missile assault on the Syrian regime, and warned another attack could follow if Damascus were to unleash more chemical weapons.
The narrowly targeted pre-dawn US-French-British operation, which took aim at three chemical weapons facilities, earned quick scorn from Russia, But Moscow’s push for condemnation of the strikes at the UN Security Council fell short.
Trump and his allies ordered the quick-strike overnight mission in response to a suspected chemical weapons attack a week ago on the rebel-held town of Douma that left more than 40 people dead.
Washington believes both sarin and chlorine were used in the attack, a senior US administration official told reporters on Saturday.
Both the regime of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and its ally Russia have denied all responsibility for the April 7 attack. Moscow slammed the “aggressive actions” of the Western coalition, but has not yet responded militarily.
US Ambassador Nikki Haley warned her UN counterparts that although the mission was designed as a one-off, that did not preclude further action against Assad.
“I spoke to the president this morning and he said: ‘If the Syrian regime uses this poisonous gas again, the United States is locked and loaded,’” Haley said at emergency Security Council talks.
“When our president draws a red line, our president enforces the red line.”
– ‘ Perfectly executed’ –
Just before dawn on Saturday, the sounds of massive explosions and the roar of warplanes rang out across Damascus for about 45 minutes.
“A perfectly executed strike last night. Thank you to France and the United Kingdom for their wisdom and the power of their fine Military,” Trump tweeted early Saturday.
“Could not have had a better result. Mission Accomplished!”
Trump drew some criticism for his choice of words: former president George W. Bush notoriously stood on an aircraft carrier just a few weeks after the initial Iraq invasion in 2003 in front of a “Mission Accomplished” banner.
“We met our objectives. We hit the sites, the heart of the chem weapons program. So it was mission accomplished,” Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White later said.
The targets included a scientific research facility near Damascus, a chemical weapons storage facility west of the city of Homs, and a third location near Homs that contained both a command post and a chemical weapons equipment storage facility, the US military said.
The facilities had however reportedly been evacuated in recent days.
Syrian state media reported only three people injured, while Russia’s defense ministry said there were “no victims” among Syrian civilians and military personnel.
According to US officials, the operation involved three US destroyers, a French frigate and a US submarine. The vessels were located in the Red Sea, the Gulf and the eastern Mediterranean.
A top Pentagon official, Lieutenant General Kenneth McKenzie, said the action would set back Syria’s chemical weapons program “for years,” but he noted a “residual” element remained.
“I’m not going to say that they are going to be unable to continue to conduct a chemical attack in the future,” McKenzie said.
“I suspect, however, they’ll think long and hard about it based on the activities of last night.”
– Defiant Assad –
The strikes were the biggest foreign military action so far against Syria’s regime.
Trump, who announced the start of the joint strikes late Friday, called the Douma attack the “crimes of a monster,” referring to Assad.
On Saturday, Trump called British Prime Minister Theresa May and French President Emmanuel Macron to discuss their joint action.
Assad, who has denied ever using chemical weapons against his opponents, responded to the strikes with a defiant vow.
“This aggression will only make Syria and its people more determined to keep fighting and crushing terrorism in every inch of the country,” he said.
Assad’s key ally Iran also slammed the attack, with supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei describing Western leaders as “criminals.”
The targets appeared to steer well clear of any Russian personnel or equipment in Syria, where Moscow launched a military intervention in support of Assad in 2015.
The Russian military claimed Syrian air defense systems had intercepted 71 Western missiles, though the Pentagon flatly dismissed the claim and said all missiles hit their targets.
– Rally in Damascus –
In central Damascus, dozens of Syrians arrived on bicycles, on foot and in cars spray painted with the red, white, and black colors of the Syrian flag, blaring patriotic tunes.
Nedher Hammoud, 48, claimed to have seen missiles “being shot down like flies.”
“History will record that Syria shot down missiles — and not just missiles. It shot down American arrogance,” he said.
Despite the strikes, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons said it was still pursuing its investigation into the Douma attack.
Thousands of rebels and civilians have since been bussed out of the town under a Russian-brokered deal. Syrian internal security forces entered Douma on Saturday and said the town would be secured within hours.
Jaish al-Islam, the group that held Douma, said it only abandoned the town because of the chemical attack.
Ahmad, a 25-year-old mechanic who had been displaced from Douma, told AFP the Western strikes were nevertheless too little, too late.
“Assad won’t collapse. They’ll bomb for a day or two and then the regime will take it out on us,” he said.
– UN chief urges restraint –
UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres asked for restraint in comments Saturday before the Security Council.
“At this critical juncture, I call on all member states to act consistently with the charter of the United Nations and with international law, including the norms against chemical weapons,” he said.
An effort by Russia to secure UN condemnation of the strikes failed in the Council, only winning three of the nine votes needed for adoption.