The coordinated strike marked the second time in a little over a year that Trump has used force against Assad, who U.S. officials believe has continued to test the West’s willingness to accept gruesome chemical attacks.
Trump, speaking from the White House late Friday, said the attack last weekend was “a significant escalation” of Assad’s use of chemical weapons and warranted a stepped-up international response. Russia, the Syrian regime’s most powerful ally, harshly criticized the airstrikes but did not respond militarily.
The alleged chemical weapons use was not the work of “a man,” Trump said. It was “the crimes of a monster instead.”
Trump said the mandate for an allied attack was open-ended, but Pentagon chiefs later said the strikes Friday would be repeated only if Assad took further action that warranted a response.
Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the U.S. military, in conjunction with British and French forces, struck three sites — a scientific research center near Damascus, a chemical weapons storage facility near Homs and a storage facility and command post also near Homs.
Dunford said that unlike the unilateral U.S. strike in Syria last year, in which only one site was attacked, the United States worked with two allies and hit the three sites in an operation that he said would result in the long-term degradation of Syria’s ability to research, develop and deploy chemical weapons.
The attack involved munitions fired from aircraft and naval vessels, including about 100 Tomahawk cruise missiles, according to a Defense Department official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss operational details. The Pentagon also employed the B-1 strategic bomber.
The assault came despite the lack of a definitive independent finding that chemical weapons were used or who had deployed them. An initial team of inspectors had only arrived in Syria on Friday.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis declined to say whether he thought the attack would prevent Assad from using chemical weapons again.
“Nothing is certain in these kinds of matters. However, we used a little over double the number of weapons this year than we used last year,” he said. “It was done on targets that we believed were selected to hurt the chemical weapons program. We confined it to the chemical weapons-type targets.”
Mattis said that to his knowledge there were no U.S. or allied losses from the strikes Friday.
Dunford said that the only communications that took place between the United States and Russia before the operation were “the normal deconfliction of the airspace, the procedures that are in place for all of our operations in Syria.”
Russia says the suspected chemical attack was concocted by the West in order to justify a strike against Assad. The Russian ambassador to the United States, Anatoly Antonov, warned that “such actions will not be left without consequences. All responsibility for them rests with Washington, London and Paris.” Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said the airstrikes represented the latest blow to the Syrian people “from those who claim to have moral leadership in this world.”
Russia seemed keen, however, to keep military tensions from escalating further. The Defense Ministry said that Russian air defense systems were not used to ward off the strike because the attacking cruise missiles did not enter the Russian systems’ “zone of responsibility” in the skies above Syria.
It was not immediately clear how the Syrian military responded to the attack. Russia said that Soviet-made Syrian air defenses succeeded in shooting down a significant number of cruise missiles. Dunford said that Syrian forces fired surface-to-air missiles but that he did not have a full picture of the response. He said the Pentagon would provide more details Saturday.
British Prime Minister Theresa May issued a statement saying the attacks were a response to “circumstances of pure horror.”
In a statement, French President Emmanuel Macron said, “Our response has been limited to the Syrian regimes facilities enabling the production and deployment of chemical weapons.”
Vice President Pence left the opening ceremony of the Summit of the Americas in Lima, Peru, to place calls to all four congressional leaders in advance of the airstrikes, speaking directly to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.); a spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said that he was also notified just prior to Trump’s statement.
The assault followed repeated threats of military action from Trump, who has been moved by civilian suffering to set aside his concerns about foreign military conflicts, since the reported chemical attack that killed civilians in a rebel-held town outside Damascus last weekend.
The operation capped nearly a week of debate in which Pentagon leaders voiced concerns that an attack could pull the United States into Syria’s civil war and trigger a dangerous conflict with Assad ally Russia — without necessarily halting chemical attacks.
Both Syria and Russia have denied involvement in the attack, which Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov alleged had been staged.
The episode is the latest illustration of the hazards arising from a conflict that has killed an estimated half-million people and drawn in world powers since it began as peaceful protests in 2011.
The attack raised the possibility of retaliation by Russia or Iran, which also provides military support to Assad, threatening in particular to increase the risks facing a force of 2,000 Americans in Syria as part of the battle against the Islamic State. While the United States has not been at war with the Syrian government, U.S. troops often operate in proximity to Iranian- or Russian-backed groups.
In the wake of last weekend’s gruesome attack, some U.S. officials advocated a larger, and therefore riskier, strike than the limited action Trump ordered in April 2017, also in response to suspected chemical weapons use.
That attack involved 59 Tomahawk missiles fired from two U.S. warships in the Mediterranean Sea. It fulfilled Trump’s vow that chemical weapons are a “red line” that he, unlike his predecessor Barack Obama, would not allow Assad to cross. But the airfield targeted by the Pentagon resumed operations shortly after the attack and, according to Western intelligence assessments, chemical attacks resumed.
Assad’s defiance presented Trump with a choice of whether to make a larger statement and incur a larger risk this time. Planning for these strikes focused on ways to curb Assad’s ability to use such weapons again.
Risks of the renewed attack include the possibility of a dangerous escalation with Russia, whose decision to send its military to Syria in 2015 reversed the course of the war in Assad’s favor. Since then, Russia has used Syria as a testing ground for some of its most sophisticated weaponry.
Since last year’s strike, multiple chemical attacks have been reported in opposition areas, most of them involving chlorine rather than the nerve agent sarin, as was used in 2017, suggesting the government may have adjusted its tactics.
Earlier Friday, Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, accused Russia of lying and covering up for the Assad government, which had used chemical weapons at least 50 times in the past seven years of warfare, Haley claimed.
“Russia can complain all it wants about fake news, but no one is buying its lies and its coverups,” she said. “Russia was supposed to guarantee Assad would not use chemical weapons, and Russia did the opposite.”
Russia had called for the emergency U.N. Security Council meeting on Syria as military action seemed likely.
Russia’s U.N. ambassador, Vassily Nebenzia, had accused the United States, France and Britain of saber-rattling.
“Why are you seeking to plunge the Middle East into such difficulties, provoking one conflict after another, pitting one state against another?” he said at the United Nations in New York on Friday, claiming that anti-government militias had received “instructions” to begin an offensive as soon as an act of force begins. “Is the latest wave of chaos being unleashed only for the sake of that?”
Russia has deployed thousands of troops and military advisers, as well as air defense systems, in Syria.
Russia’s military threatened to shoot down any U.S. missiles that put Russian lives at risk. Russia could also fire at the launch platforms used — potentially U.S. planes or ships. Russian officials had said U.S. and Russian military staffs remained in contact regarding Syria, even as Russian media carried stories in recent days about the potential outbreak of “World War III” as a consequence of a U.S. airstrike against Assad.
Russian President Vladimir Putin warned Macron in a phone call Friday that the situation remained tense, the Kremlin said in a statement.
“Most important, it is imperative to avoid badly planned and dangerous actions that would be crude violations of the U.N. Charter and would have unpredictable consequences,” the Kremlin said. “Both leaders directed the ministers of defense and foreign affairs to maintain close contact with the goal of de-escalating the situation.”
U.N. Secretary General António Guterres told the Security Council that he feared events could escalate rapidly into a regional and even global conflict, and he urged all states “to act responsibly in these dangerous circumstances.”
Britain’s U.N. ambassador, Karen Pierce, noted that May’s cabinet had “agreed on the need to take action to alleviate humanitarian distress and to deter the further use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime.”
Announcement of that approval Thursday did not specify that the response should be military, although that was the expectation.
“We will continue to work with our friends and allies to coordinate an international response to that end,” Pierce said Friday.
Opposition lawmakers urged May to first seek Parliament’s consent before committing to any military action. Nothing requires that May do so, but the convention is for British lawmakers to be given a chance to vote. Parliament is in recess but could be recalled for an emergency session.
Louisa Loveluck in Beirut, Anton Troianovski in Moscow, and Carol Morello and Paul Sonne in Washington contributed to this report.