A US-backed alliance of militias said “Islamic State” (IS) fighters have evacuated the city of Raqqa under an agreement to release captive civilians. US-backed forces have almost completely captured Raqqa.
The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias, on Sunday launched their final assault against the remaining “Islamic State” (IS) fighters in the northern Syrian city of Raqqa .
More than 3,000 civilians fled the city as part of the evacuation agreement, said SDF spokesman Talal Silo.
On Saturday, the SDF had agreed to a proposal that allowed Syrian IS jihadists to leave the city in exchange for the release of civilians held by the militants. However, IS’ foreign fighters were excluded from the evacuation deal.
“Last night, the final batch of fighters (who agreed to leave) left the city,” said SDF spokesman Mostafa Bali, adding that no foreign fighters had left the city. The SDF later said in a statement that around 275 local fighters and their families had left as part of the deal.
“The final battle will continue until the entire city is cleansed of terrorists, who have refused to surrender,” the SDF said.
However, Omar Alloush, an official in the Raqqa Civilian Council, disputed the SDF’s claim and said a batch of foreign jihadists had also departed with the convoy of local militants.
‘Our aim is liberation’
The US had earlier protested a safe exit for the extremist group. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said Friday the US would accept the surrender of IS militants who would be interrogated for intelligence purposes.
The tribal leaders said they appealed to the coalition and the SDF to allow IS fighters to leave the city to stem further violence.
“Because our aim is liberation, not killing, we appealed to the SDF to arrange for the local fighters and secure their exit to outside of the city with our guarantees,” the tribal chiefs said in a statement.
IS had seized Raqqa as part of a broad offensive in Syria and Iraq in early 2014, and the city has since served as the jihadists’ primary Syrian stronghold.
But IS has lost much of its territory after US and Russian-backed forces began separate offensives against the militant group. In July, US-backed Iraqi forces retook Mosul, the jihadists’ de facto capital in Iraq.
Syria: The Battle for Raqqa
‘Liberation within days’
Raqqa has practically fallen to the US-led coalition, but it is unclear how many militants are still in the city. There have been reports of continued fighting between SDF fighters and IS jihadists in some parts of the city.
Located along the Euphrates River near the Iraqi border, Mayadeen had been a strategic IS stronghold as the group lost territory in Syria and Iraq.
Pro-Syrian regime forces have been trying to secure the Iraqi border and push IS out of a small pocket in the provincial capital, Deir al-Zor.
WHAT IS THE ‘ISLAMIC STATE’?
Where did it come from?
Islamic State (IS) – also known as ISIL, ISIS and Daesh – is an al-Qaida splinter group with a militant Sunni Islamist ideology. It emerged in the aftermath of the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and is led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The group’s goal is to create a worldwide “caliphate.” It gained worldwide notoriety in 2014 after a blitzkrieg military campaign that resulted in the capture of Mosul.
‘Islamic State’ facing imminent collapse in Syria’s Raqqa
US-backed coalition forces claim they are about to drive the “Islamic State” completely out of Raqqa. Local officials and tribal leaders have reportedly struck a deal to allow IS fighters and civilians to evacuate. (14.10.2017)
Raqqa: US-backed forces declare end in sight for ‘Islamic State’ (IS)
The IS militant group has been cornered into a pocket of territory near the Syrian city center where it once staged beheadings and crucifixions. US-backed forces said the fight for the stronghold is nearly over. (09.10.2017)
Syria: Civilians trapped in Raqqa as ‘Islamic State’ makes last stand
With a “hard core of foreign fighters,” the notorious militant group has positioned itself for its last stand in Raqqa. The US-led coalition against “Islamic State” has rejected any negotiated withdrawal of militants. (11.10.2017)
Iraq PM Haider al-Abadi declares Mosul victory over ‘Islamic State’
Iraqi PM Haider al-Abadi has announced victory over the Islamic State in the city of Mosul. The EU hailed the defeat of IS but called on Iraqis to work together to improve their country. (09.07.2017)
Renewed fighting in Syria intensifies, even in ‘de-escalation zones’
The UN warns that the seemingly indiscriminate bombings of hospitals, schools and civilians could amount to war crimes. Officials say it is the most brutal fighting since last year’s gruesome battle for Aleppo. (05.10.2017)
Syrian Christians advance against IS in de-facto capital Raqqa
The battle for “Islamic State” stronghold Raqqa has reached its final stages, according to the Syrian Democratic Forces, the US-backed multi-ethnic alliance fighting IS. Karlos Zurutuza reports from Raqqa. (20.09.2017)
The US had to step back from its policy of regime change in Syria after multiple failures, as the jihadists they allegedly hoped to use as a proxy began posing a threat, Hezbollah’s Deputy Secretary General, Sheikh Naim Qassem argued in an interview to RT.
For an exclusive interview with RT’s Eisa Ali, one of the most senior Hezbollah leaders agreed to meet –with the toughest security precautions in place – in a clandestine location in Beirut. Qassem told RT he believes US President Donald Trump has opted for a less confrontational approach in Syria of late after previous attempts to oust the Syrian government proved futile.
“When they failed by using the military option, or by using the opposition option, or by using their cooperation with the regional Arabic countries that wanted change in Syria in favor of Israel, America adopted a new non-confrontation policy with President [Bashar] Assad because of their inability to do more, and because they know that [Islamic State] is against them as much as they are against the Syrian people,” Kassem claimed.
He noted, however, that a perceived change in political strategy does not mean that the White House has reversed its opinion of Assad, arguing that the US has been left with no better option than to fight the “monster” of Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL) which they helped to create in the first place but which has “now shifted against them.”
‘We’ll respect any choice made by the Syrian people’
Speaking of Syrian President Bashar Assad, and Hezbollah’s view on his role as the country’s head of state, Qassem said that the group regards Assad as the legitimate ruler of Syria, re-elected by the people to serve as the country’s leader.
Arguing that the main interest of the US in the war was to “remove President Assad from power and change Syria’s stance from resistance to American-Israeli friendly,” he praised Assad for being an effective leader, guiding his country through difficult times of war.
However, he went on to stress that the Syrian President’s fate lies exclusively in the hands of the Syrian people.
“We are with the Syrian people’s choice and when it is election time and Syria’s choice will be made without external intervention, we will respect any choice made by the Syrian people.”
Qassem said there is an “effective” cooperation between the Syrian and Russian armed forces, Iran and Hezbollah, which has contributed greatly to Syria’s driving jihadists out of swathes of its territory.
‘Israel plays part in Syria’s destruction’
Accusing Israel of fuelling the protracted Syrian conflict, Qassem in particular pointed to the Jewish state’s reported support of armed opposition groups fighting the Syrian forces and affiliated militias in the south-western Syrian city of Daraa and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.
“Israel plays the main part in Syria’s destruction, and it is an important supporter of the armed opposition, especially in the southern part of Syria,” Kassem said.
Qassem further claimed that over 3000 militants fighting the Syrian government have received treatment in Israeli hospitals, adding that there have been reports of cross-border supplies of munitions and food from Israel to Syria.
A US-Russian ceasefire agreement for south-western Syria dealt a blow to Israel’s alleged aspirations as it did not include removing Hezbollah from its positions in the border area, Qassem argued. Shortly after the deal was agreed in July, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu denounced the plan, saying it might strengthen Iranian influence in the country.
Criticism was levelled at Hezbollah in late August for allowing the evacuation of some 300 Islamic State terrorists and roughly as many family members from the Qalamoun Mountains to the eastern province of Deir al-Zor as part of the deal to return bodies of eight slain Hezbollah fighters. Qassem justified the controversial move by saying that the group did not know whether the fighters were alive or dead and that it was “an important chance that could not be [used] again.”
The deal sparked outrage, with critics slamming the group for negotiating with terrorists. After the deal was struck and the militants departed to Deir ez-Zor, the US-led international coalition shelled the road to impede relocations of militants and their family members and struck some of the vehicles and fighters it “clearly identified as ISIS.” In a statement following the attack, the coalition said it “was not a party to any agreement” negotiated between Lebanon, ISIS and Hezbollah and considered the moving of terrorists from one part of the country to another “not a lasting solution.”
Since the beginning of the Syrian conflict six years ago, Hezbollah has been embroiled in fighting IS and Al-Nusra Front terrorists in Syria in cooperation with government forces. The group, which is listed as a terrorist entity in the West and in most of the Arab League countries, has been repeatedly targeted by Israeli airstrikes on Syrian soil.
NOW PLAYINGRussia condemns US for shooting down Syrian gov’t jet
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Capt. Jeff Davis speaks to reporters. (state.gov)
U.S. pilots operating over Syria won’t hesitate to defend themselves from Russian threats, a Pentagon spokesperson said Monday in the latest escalation between the two superpowers since a U.S. jet shot down a Syrian aircraft on Sunday.
“We do not seek conflict with any party in Syria other than ISIS, but we will not hesitate to defend ourselves or our partners if threatened,” Capt. Jeff Davis told Fox News.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford doubled down on that rhetoric during a Monday speech at the National Press Club.
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A ‘Super Hornet’ jet launching from the USS George HW Bush in April. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Christopher Gaines)
“I’m confident that we are still communicating between our operations center and the Russia federation operations center — and I’m also confident that our forces have the capability to take care of themselves,” Dunford said.
Department of Defense spokesperson Maj. Adrian J.T. Rankine-Galloway said coalition aircraft would continue conducting “operations throughout Syria, targeting ISIS forces and providing air support for Coalition partner forces on the ground.”
“As a result of recent encounters involving pro-Syrian Regime and Russian forces, we have taken prudent measures to re-position aircraft over Syria so as to continue targeting ISIS forces while ensuring the safety of our aircrew given known threats in the battlespace,” Rankine-Galloway said in a statement.
Earlier Monday, Russian officials threatened to treat U.S.-led coalition planes flying in Syria, west of the Euphrates River, would be considered targets.
The news came one day after the first time in history a U.S. jet shot down a Syrian plane – and the first time in nearly 20 years the U.S. has shot down any warplane in air-to-air combat.
The last time a U.S. jet had shot down another country’s aircraft came over Kosovo in 1999 when a U.S. Air Force F-15 Eagle shot down a Serbian MiG-29.
On Sunday, it was a U.S. F-18 Super Hornet that shot down a Syrian SU-22 after that jet dropped bombs near U.S. partner forces taking on ISIS.
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Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, left, meeting with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus. (SANA)
Russia’s defense ministry also said Monday it was suspending coordination with the U.S. in Syria over so-called “de-confliction zones” after the downing of the Syrian jet.
The United States and Russia, which has been providing air cover for Syria’s President Bashar Assad since 2015 in his offensive against ISIS, have a standing agreement that should prevent in-the-air incidents involving U.S. and Russian jets engaged in operations over Syria.
The Russian defense ministry said it viewed the incident as Washington’s “deliberate failure to make good on its commitments” under the de-confliction deal.’
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, in comments to Russian news agencies, compared the downing to “helping the terrorists that the U.S. is fighting against.”
“What is this, if not an act of aggression,” he asked.
Meanwhile, the U.S.-backed opposition fighters said Assad’s forces have been attacking their positions in the northern province of Raqqa and warned that if such attacks continue, the fighters will take action.
“Would just tell you that we’ll work diplomatically and militarily in the coming hours to establish deconfliction,” Dunford said.
Fox News’ Lucas Tomlinson and Jennifer Griffin and The Associated Press contributed to this report.
WASHINGTON — In the days since President Trump ordered a cruise missile strike against Syria in retaliation for a chemical attack on civilians, his administration has spoken with multiple voices as it seeks to explain its evolving policy. But one voice has not been heard from: that of Mr. Trump himself.
As various officials have described it, the United States will intervene only when chemical weapons are used — or any time innocents are killed. It will push for the ouster of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria — or pursue that only after defeating the Islamic State. America’s national interest in Syria is to fight terrorism. Or to ease the humanitarian crisis there. Or to restore stability.
The latest mixed messages were sent on Monday in both Washington and Europe. Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson — during a stop in Italy on his way to Moscow for a potentially tense visit, given Russian anger at last week’s missile strike — outlined a dramatically interventionist approach. “We rededicate ourselves to holding to account any and all who commit crimes against the innocents anywhere in the world,” he said.
Hours later, Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, said at his daily briefing that Mr. Trump would act against Syria not just if it resorted to chemical weapons, like the sarin nerve agent reportedly used last week, but also when it used conventional munitions. “If you gas a baby, if you put a barrel bomb into innocent people, I think you will see a response from this president,” Mr. Spicer said.
For Mr. Trump, who came to office espousing an “America first” policy that stayed out of the affairs of other countries where the United States had no interest of its own, responding to barrel bombs in Syria or to “any and all” humanitarian abuses “anywhere” would be a far more sweeping standard for American leadership. If anything, it sounds more like the activist advisers around President Barack Obama, such as Samantha Power, his ambassador to the United Nations, who pushed for more intervention to protect civilians in various conflict zones, often to no avail.
Just as likely, analysts said, neither Mr. Tillerson nor Mr. Spicer really meant it or, possibly, fully understood the potentially far-reaching consequences of what they were saying. Unlike chemical weapons, barrel bombs — typically oil drums filled with explosives — are used with vicious regularity in the Syrian civil war. According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, the government dropped 495 barrel bombs in March alone, and 12,958 in 2016.
By the end of the day Monday, fearing that a new “red line” had been drawn, the White House sought to unwind Mr. Spicer’s comment. “Nothing has changed in our posture,” officials said in a statement emailed to reporters. “The president retains the option to act in Syria against the Assad regime whenever it is in the national interest, as was determined following that government’s use of chemical weapons against its own citizens.”
The confusion was only heightened when The Associated Press quoted an unidentified American official saying that Russia had known about Syria’s chemical attack in advance. The White House summoned reporters for a background briefing but then made the session off the record, leaving the matter unaddressed. Hours later, a senior administration official issued a brief statement saying there was no consensus within the American intelligence community that Russia had foreknowledge of the attack.
With all the murky signals, Mr. Trump has done little to clarify how he will proceed after firing Tomahawks at a Syrian air base in retaliation for the chemical attack, which killed more than 80 civilians. While his cabinet and other advisers seem to be reading from different talking points, the president has not spoken publicly about Syria at all since the missile strike last Thursday night. Even his famed Twitter feed has largely avoided the subject, beyond thanking military personnel.
The only substantive comment he has made on Twitter about the situation was to defend against critics who asked why the runway at the air base had been left untouched. “The reason you don’t generally hit runways is that they are easy and inexpensive to quickly fix (fill in and top)!” he wrote on Sunday.
The resulting vacuum has left world leaders and American lawmakers scratching their heads over how the United States will proceed now that it has taken direct action against Mr. Assad’s government for the first time in Syria’s six-year-old civil war.
Mr. Tillerson made his comment a day before arriving in Moscow to confront Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, over the Kremlin’s support for Mr. Assad. There had been some expectation that Mr. Tillerson would meet with President Vladimir V. Putin. But Russia announced on Monday that Mr. Putin would be unavailable — another sign of the Kremlin’s growing displeasure.
Although Mr. Tillerson, a former chief executive of Exxon Mobil, has known Mr. Putin for years, he will now be the first secretary of state not to meet with the Russian president or top Soviet leader in his inaugural trip to Moscow in office, according to State Department records and news reports.
On Sunday, Mr. Tillerson called Russia “incompetent” for allowing Syria to hold on to chemical weapons, and he accused Russia of trying to influence elections in Europe using the same methods it employed in the United States.
European countries, which had been deeply uneasy with the Trump administration’s more transactional approach to foreign policy and its potential willingness to forgive Mr. Putin’s annexation of Crimea and continued meddling in Ukraine, welcomed the strike on Syria and Mr. Tillerson’s reference to humanitarian issues’ guiding strategy.
“There is overwhelming support in what the U.S. did,” Britain’s foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, said on Monday, “signaling that we will not tolerate the barbaric use of chemical weapons.”
The foreign ministers of France and Italy have made similar remarks, with Angelino Alfano of Italy saying the American military strike had contributed to a “renewed harmony” between the United States and Europe.
Mr. Johnson said Europe also supported the Trump administration’s increasingly hard line on Russia, saying that Mr. Putin was “toxifying the reputation of Russia with his continuous association with a guy that has flagrantly poisoned his own people.”
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Still, the Europeans and others were left to puzzle out Mr. Trump’s strategy. Over the weekend, Mr. Tillerson suggested that the administration still wanted to stay out of Syria’s war. “We’re asking and calling on Bashar al-Assad to cease the use of these weapons,” he said on ABC’s “This Week.” “Other than that, there is no change to our military posture.”
Yet Nikki R. Haley, the ambassador to the United Nations, suggested on CNN’s “State of the Union” that Mr. Assad had to go. “There is no political solution that any of us can see with Assad at the lead,” she said.
By the time Mr. Tillerson met with other foreign ministers from the Group of 7 in Italy on Monday, he seemed to be emphasizing a shift from Mr. Trump’s focus on economic nationalism to a foreign policy at least partly defined by humanitarian values. Mr. Tillerson belatedly added a visit to a memorial at Sant’Anna di Stazzema, a village near Lucca where 560 people, including children, were massacred by the Nazis during World War II.
After the blaring of trumpets and the laying of a wreath at the memorial, Mr. Tillerson approached a small news media contingent to make a three-sentence declaration that included the pledge to hold accountable “any and all who commit crimes” against innocent civilians.
But back in Washington, Mr. Spicer seemed to return to Mr. Trump’s “America first” formulation. “We’re not just going to become the world’s policeman running around the country — running around the world,” he said. “It’s our national security first and foremost.”
Asked if Syria fit within that doctrine, he said, “Absolutely.”
Correction: April 10, 2017
An earlier version of this article mischaracterized the history of secretaries of state meeting with Russian leaders. Rex W. Tillerson will be the first secretary of state ever not to meet with a Russian president or top Soviet leader on his first trip to Moscow in office, not the first since Warren Christopher in 1993.
Tensions with Russia high as Tillerson heads to Moscow next week
Trump’s Syria strike marks a policy reversal
Washington (CNN)The US attack on a Syrian air base Thursday devastated an airfield, sent a stark message to Syria and its protector Russia and raised a host of questions about whether and how the Trump administration’s stance on the Middle East might change.
President Donald Trump’s decision to punish Syria for a chemical weapons attack that killed more than 80 people, including children, marked a 180-degree departure from the “America First” philosophy that signaled a rejection of international engagements and from his September 2016 declaration that the US “cannot be the policeman of the world.”
Instead, the decision to blast 60 Tomahawk missiles from a US Navy destroyer to wreak havoc inside Syria sends an entirely different signal that will put Damascus and other rogue regimes on notice and shape relations with Syria’s ally and protector Russia just as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is set to visit Moscow.
Administration officials insisted Friday that their overall policy hadn’t changed and that the strike was only meant to convey that chemical weapons are unacceptable.
But the strike could set in motion events that force Trump to take a more active role on the world stage, experts said, while others suggested the chemical weapons attack might have changed Trump’s outlook on the role the US should play.
“To me, it was a very clarifying moment for the president,” Sen. Bob Corker, the Tennessee Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee told CNN’s Jake Tapper. “I’ve seen him evolve … in a good way on China, evolve in a good way on NATO, evolve in a good way on Israel.”
Trump has “maybe not had the experiences of those of us who have seen these people in refugee camps, have seen what this monster [Syrian President Bashar al-]Assad has done in torturing people, and I think this was a clarifying moment for him.”
Indeed, Trump used to rail against former President Barack Obama for involvement in Syria and during the campaign he even floated the idea of cooperating with Assad. But at a Wednesday press conference with Jordan’s King Abdullah II bin Al-Hussein, Trump told reporters that “my attitude toward Syria and Assad has changed very much.”
In the weeks leading up to the chemical attack, the administration had stressed that its priority in the Middle East was defeating ISIS, that it had no interest in getting mired there and that Assad’s removal — an Obama administration focus — was no longer a priority.
McCain: The Russians are as bad as Assad01:28
On Friday, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin announced new sanctions against Syria were on the way. And a senior administration official cautioned the strike shouldn’t be seen as the beginning of a wider campaign to weaken or remove the Syrian leader. The official said the mission was aimed at dealing with the “unacceptability” of Assad’s use chemical weapons and that Trump’s priority focus remains defeating ISIS.
But analysts warned that having stepped into the Syrian fray, Trump may find it hard to step back or differentiate himself from Obama unless he takes steps to do more.
The International Rescue Committee was among groups that immediately started urging Trump to do more on Syria. “Now that the US administration has chosen to deploy military force, they have a greater responsibility to redouble diplomatic efforts toward establishing a credible path towards peace,” said IRC president David Miliband. He noted that “the only true protection from conflict is the end of conflict.”
Frederic Hof, director of the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council, said that if the strike is “simply a one-off, a punch in the nose for using those chemicals on those poor people, then the message is ‘do whatever you want, as long as it’s not with chemicals’.”
Trump’s press secretary would not say definitively whether the President believes the Syrian leader should go. “The President’s actions were very decisive last night, and very clear about what he thinks needs to get done,” Sean Spicer told reporters in Florida on Thursday.
“The Syrian government and the Assad regime should, at a minimum, agree to abide by the agreements they made not to use chemical weapons,” Spicer said. “I think that’s where we start,” he said.
Sen. Ernst: This was a one-time attack02:48
Hof, who served as Obama’s special adviser for transition in Syria, is among the many who argue that Assad’s brutality acts as a major recruiting tool for terrorists, and that leaving the Syrian leader in place “will make it very hard for the administration to meet its primary objective of defeating Daesh,” the Arabic acronym for ISIS.
In that light, leaving Assad in power would mean the US strike “will ultimately go down in history as a particularly useless gesture,” Hof said. “That’s why I think it’s important for the Trump administration to get the message to the Russians, ‘You’ve got to get your guy out’.”
Tillerson is set to travel to Moscow next week, and though he is new to diplomacy, he is deeply familiar with Russia, where he spent time during his work as CEO of ExxonMobil. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said he was “particularly disappointed” by the way the strike “damages US-Russia relations, (but) I don’t think this will lead to an irreversible situation.”
Russia suspended but didn’t cancel a deconfliction channel the US and Russian militaries use to ensure they don’t accidentally clash during operations against ISIS. “Clearly it complicates the bilateral relationship in the short term,” Alexander Vershbow, a former US ambassador to Russia who is now a distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council, said of the strike.
James Jeffrey, a former ambassador to Iraq who is now a distinguished fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said it’s unlikely Russia will have much success using the attack against the US. The fulsome international support for the US strike “is going to box Russia in” if it tries to attack the US at the United Nations, he said.
Syrian survivor to Trump: Thank you00:57
Russia might even see an advantage in the strike, said Andrew Tabler, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute. He notes the Russians have had “a hard time” getting Assad to the negotiating table with the Syrian opposition. Now, he said, they could use the strike to apply pressure, warning that the regime might be subject to more if they don’t cooperate.
“Having a sword of Damocles hanging over Assad’s head is not necessarily a bad thing,” Tabler said.
Vershbow sees an opportunity for the US to apply pressure as well. “If Russia wants an endless civil war, they will continue to shield Assad,” the former ambassador said. Tillerson should tell Russia that “if you want to bring this to an end, giving Assad impunity has to stop,” he said. The question, Vershbow added, is whether the US will be prepared “to threaten the ‘or else’ part.”
“So I think the administration has to think through clearly,” Vershbow said, “because without an ‘or else,’ it’s not going to be a credible message.”
The strike is the first direct military action taken by the US against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the country’s six-year civil war. It represents a substantial escalation of the US military campaign in the region, and could be interpreted by the Syrian government as an act of war.
Six people were killed in the airstrike, according to a televised statement by the Syrian’s Armed Forces General Command. Russia condemned the strike as an “act of aggression,” and Assad’s office Friday called it “a disgraceful act” that “can only be described as short-sighted.”
“Tonight, I ordered a targeted military strike on the air field in Syria from where the chemical attack was launched,” Trump said during short remarks to reporters at Mar-a-Lago, where he ordered the strike just hours earlier. “It is in this vital national security of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons.”
He added: “There can be no dispute that Syria used banned chemical weapons, violated its obligations under the Chemical Weapons Convention and ignored the urging of the UN Security Council. Years of previous attempts at changing Assad’s behavior have all failed and failed very dramatically.”
Video shows gas attack aftermath 01:23
Shift in policy
Trump’s decision marked a dramatic shift in his position on whether the US should take military action against the Syrian President’s regime — which Trump opposed during his campaign for president — and came after the President was visibly and publicly moved by the images of this week’s chemical weapons attack.
US warships launch cruise missiles at Syria00:33
The strike took place at 8:40 p.m. ET (3:40 a.m. local time), when there would have been minimal activity at the base. It targeted aircraft, aircraft shelters, petroleum and logistical storage, ammunition supply bunkers, air defense systems, and “the things that make the airfield operate,” Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis told reporters. The missiles were launched from warships in the Eastern Mediterranean.
“Initial indications are that this strike has severely damaged or destroyed Syrian aircraft and support infrastructure and equipment at Shayrat Airfield, reducing the Syrian government’s ability to deliver chemical weapons,” the Pentagon said in a statement.
A US defense official told CNN Friday morning that an initial battle damage assessment from the strike was that 58 of the 59 missiles “severely degraded or destroyed” their intended target. The official cautioned that this is just the earliest assessment using radar and that more robust assessments using satellites and other surveillance is still pending.
Thirty-six of the Tomahawks were fired from the USS Ross and the other 23 were launched from the USS Porter, the official added.
Briefing reporters late Thursday night, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that the strike did not represent a “change in our policy or our posture in Syria,” even though it marked the first time the US had decided to take military action against the Syrian government.
“There has been no change in that status,” he said. “It does demonstrate that President Trump is willing to act when governments and actors cross the line … and cross the line in the most heinous of ways.”
Tillerson said the administration felt the strike was “proportional because it was targeted at the facility that delivered this most recent chemical attack.”
The US military on Thursday showed reporters an image of the radar track of a Syrian airplane leaving the airfield and flying to the chemical strike area Tuesday. A second image of bomb damage craters at the airbase was also shown to reporters at the Pentagon.
Tillerson said the US has a “very high level of confidence” that the Syrian regime carried out at least three attacks in recent weeks — including on Tuesday — using Sarin and nerve gas.
On Friday, Tillerson told reporters that the administration is monitoring Syria’s response “in terms of whether they attack our forces or coalition forces” or if they seek to launch another chemical weapons attack.
“This particular strike that was carried out on the air base from which the chemical weapons attack was launched was very deliberately considered by the President,” Tillerson said. “It is a response that we believe to be both proportional and appropriate.”
“The future will be guided by how we see their reaction,” he added.
A senior administration official told CNN Friday that the strike should not be interpreted as the beginning of a wider campaign to weaken or remove Assad, but instead is aimed at dealing with the “unacceptability” of Assad’s use of chemical weapons.
This official said the President’s order to his national security team to develop a plan for defeating ISIS remains the priority for the administration. That strategy is actually well on its way to being completed, the official added.
But the strikes represented not only an escalation of the US role in Syria, but could have a ripple effect on the US’ relations with the Syrian regime’s powerful backer, Russia.
Russians were present at the base the US struck, a US defense official said, though the role of those Russians was not immediately known.
Tillerson confirmed that the US military contacted their Russian counterparts about the attack ahead of time, in accordance with deconfliction policies between the US and Russia over military activities in Syria. Russia was given a one-hour notice, according to a senior US official.
Russian President Vladimir Putin described the US airstrikes on Syria as “an act of aggression against a sovereign state” that “dealt a serious blow to Russia-US relations,” according to a Kremlin statement. Russia said it believed Syria had destroyed all of its chemical weapons and the US strikes were based on a “far-fetched pretext.”
Lawmakers in the US generally supported Trump’s decision to strike back against Assad Thursday night, but cautioned the President against unilaterally starting a war without first consulting Congress.
A pair of defense hawks — Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham — who have frequently been critical of Trump, roundly praised his decision Thursday night.
“Acting on the orders of their commander-in-chief, they have 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,” McCain and Graham said in a joint statement.
Rubio: Russia should be embarrassed, ashamed01:16
But Sen. Rand Paul called on Trump to consult on Congress.
“While we all condemn the atrocities in Syria, the United States was not attacked,” Paul said. “The President needs congressional authorization for military action as required by the Constitution, and I call on him to come to Congress for a proper debate.”
The US began launching airstrikes in Syria in September 2014 under President Barack Obama as part of its coalition campaign against ISIS, but has only targeted the terrorist group and not Syrian government forces.
Trump met with his national security team before his dinner with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Mar-a-Lago Thursday, where he made the decision to pull the trigger on the biggest military action of his presidency, national security adviser H.R. McMaster said.
He sat through dinner with Xi as the action was under way.
The decision came two days after he was “immediately notified” of the chemical attack in Syria and asked his team to determine who was responsible. After it became clear Assad was responsible, Trump asked his team to develop options — and settled on one Thursday after “a meeting of considerable length and far-reaching discussion,” McMaster told reporters.
Defense Secretary James Mattis has been updating Trump about the missile strikes in Syria following his dinner with Xi, according to a US official.
Mattis, Tillerson and McMaster were with Trump at Mar-a-Lago at the time. Vice President Mike Pence remained in Washington, where he returned to the White House after dinner.
Trump’s order to strike the Syrian government targets came a day after he said the chemical attacks — whose grisly effects were broadcast worldwide where videos captured in the immediate aftermath — “crossed a lot of lines for me” and said he felt a “responsibility” to respond.
Tillerson: No doubt Assad is responsible 01:39
“I will tell you it’s already happened that my attitude toward Syria and Assad has changed very much,” Trump said.
“When you kill innocent children — innocent babies — babies — little babies with a chemical gas that is so lethal, people were shocked to hear what gas it was, that crosses many, many lines. Beyond a red line, many, many lines,” Trump said.
Trump’s decision to launch the strikes, the most significant military action of his young presidency, came nearly four years after the US first concluded that Syrian forces had used chemical weapons in Syria.
The Obama administration concluded that Syria had violated the “red line” Obama had set a year earlier in discussing the use of chemical weapons, but ultimately decided against military action against Syria in favor of a Russian-brokered deal to extricate the country’s chemical weapons stockpile.
Trump at the time said the US should “stay the hell out of Syria” and urged Obama on Twitter to “not attack Syria” in the wake of the 2013 chemical attack.
“There is no upside and tremendous downside. Save your ‘powder’ for another (and more important) day,” he tweeted in September 2013.
Trump repeatedly criticized Obama during his presidential campaign for not acting on his “red line” threat, but the real estate mogul also argued against deepening the US’ military involvement in Syria, particularly as it related to Assad.
Trump argued last May in a TV interview that he would “go after ISIS big league,” but said he did not support targeting Assad’s regime, arguing the US has “bigger problems than Assad.”
Syria’s six-year civil war has claimed the lives of at least 400,000, according to a United Nations estimate released a year ago. More than 5 million Syrians have fled the country and more than 6 million more have been displaced internally, according to UN agencies.
But guided by his “America First” ideology and rejection of the US’ propensity for “nation-building,” Trump did not argue in favor of stepped-up US intervention during his campaign for president.
Instead, he signaled the opposite: He argued that the US should remain laser-focused on defeating ISIS and vowed to try and partner with Russia, which has heartily backed Assad’s regime, in order to defeat ISIS and bring the conflict to an end.
Those views appeared steeped in his longstanding criticism of the Iraq War, which he called a “stupid” decision, lamenting the billions of dollars funneled toward that war effort instead of on domestic programs, like infrastructure spending.
While Trump rejected the isolationist label some placed on him during the campaign, he made clear that his preference was for limiting the US footprint around the world and refocusing US foreign policy around core national security interests.
CNN’s Ryan Browne and Jim Acosta contributed to this report.
Nikki Haley, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, warned today that the U.S. is “prepared to do more” in Syria, one day after American warships fired a barrage of cruise missiles at a Syrian government air base.
“The United States took a very measured step last night. We are prepared to do more, but we hope that will not be necessary,” Haley said Friday during a special open session of the U.N. Security Council devoted to discussing Syria.
The United States launched the direct assault against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime in response to a chemical weapons attack earlier this week that killed dozens of civilians.
Haley accused Assad’s regime of carrying out Tuesday’s horrific attack in northern Syria, saying this “fully justified” her government’s decision to strike the air base.
“The moral stain of the Assad regime could no longer go unanswered,” she said.
U.S. officials said a total 59 tomahawk missiles were launched from destroyers USS Porter and USS Ross in the Mediterranean Sea over a half-hour span beginning at 7:36 p.m. ET on Thursday. The strikes were aimed at the Shayrat Air Base in Syria‘s Homs province, where an aircraft carrying the chemical weapons in Tuesday’s attack is believed to have taken off.
The Shayrat Air Base has been one of Russia’s main airfields in Syria, serving as a forward operating base for Russian attack helicopters to support Assad regime offensives in Homs province amid Syria’s ongoing conflict.
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the United States did not discuss the military strike with Russian President Vladimir Putin or political leadership in Moscow either before or after it occurred. But the U.S. military said it communicated with its Russian counterpart to minimize any chance of Russian causalities, particularly any Russians operating out of the targeted air base.
U.S. President Donald Trump, who blamed Syria’s leader for the chemical weapons attack, said on Thursday night that the airstrikes were in the “vital national security interest” of the United States.
A U.S. official said 58 of the 59 missiles reached their intended targets, and approximately 20 aircraft were struck. The official also said that there were no Russian aircraft at the base at the time, nor was there any indication that Syria had detected incoming missiles before they struck.
According to Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis, the missiles targeted aircraft, hardened aircraft shelters, petroleum and logistical storage, ammunition supply bunkers, air defense systems and radars.
The time of the airstrike was chosen to minimize civilian casualties, Davis said.
The Shayrat Air Base housed chemical weapons prior to 2013 but it is unclear if weapons are still stored at the facility.
A U.S. official told ABC News the missiles did not target any suspected chemical weapons stockpiles at the air base because that was not the intent of the operation.
The Syrian government swiftly denounced what it described as “illegal action targeting one of our air bases against our sovereignty,” the first time the U.S. military intentionally targeted Assad’s forces since the beginning of Syria’s civil war.
Al-Assad’s office said in a statement Friday that the United States “naively followed a false and lying propaganda campaign” that led it to “carry out this irresponsible recklessness.”
“The presidency of the Arab Syrian republic asserts that what America carried out was an irresponsible act that only reflects short-sightedness, a narrow perspective and political and military blindness toward reality,” the statement said. “The fact that the United States of America has committed this shameful act by targeting an airport of a sovereign state clearly demonstrates, once again, what Syria has said and continues to say –- that changing administrations doesn’t change the deep policies of this government, namely, the targeting of countries, the subjugation of people and an attempt to dominate the world.”
The Syrian army delivered a statement on state-run television on Friday, saying six people were killed in the U.S. airstrikes. The Syrian army went on to describe the United States as “the initiators of the ongoing dirty war against our people.”
According to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the death toll has increased to seven.
Russia, a staunch ally of the Syrian government, also had harsh words for the United States, calling the military airstrike a “clear act of aggression” that would “further undermine Russo-American relations.”
The presence of military personnel from the U.S. and other countries in Syria without the permission of the government “or a resolution of the U.N. Security Council is a gross, clear and in now way justified violation of international law,” the Russian foreign ministry said in a statement Friday. “If before it was explained as a mission in the battle against terrorism, now it is a clear act of aggression against a sovereign Syria. The taking of these actions by the U.S. today yet further undermines Russo-American relations.”
The Russian foreign ministry said it was calling for an urgent United Nations Security Council meeting and that Moscow was suspending its current memorandum of understanding with the U.S. military that was aimed at avoiding air collisions in Syria.
Both Russia and the United States have a large air presence in Syria and had established so-called “de-confliction” channels to avoid collisions of their respective aircraft.
The Russian foreign ministry also suggested that the U.S. decision to strike the Syrian regime was made in advance of Tuesday’s chemical weapons attack, calling it “a pretext for a demonstration of force.”
The Russian defense ministry claimed only 23 U.S. missiles hit the Syrian air base, saying it’s unclear where the others landed. The airstrikes destroyed a supply dump, a training building, the canteen, six planes that were under repair in hangars and a radar station. The ministry claimed the runways and operational Syrian aircraft were not damaged.
Citing the Syrian military, the Russian defense ministry said four Syrian soldiers were killed and six suffered burns while putting out fires caused by the explosion. Two Syrian soldiers remain unaccounted for.
“As such, the military effectiveness of the American massed missile strike on the Syrian airbase was extremely low,” the Russian defense ministry said in a statement Friday.
What prompted the U.S. to strike?
At least 86 civilians, including 30 children and 20 women, have died from a chemical weapons attack in northern Syria on Tuesday, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Harrowing footage from the scene in Idlib province showed victims gasping for air and being hosed off, as well as the lifeless faces of those who didn’t survive. It’s the worst chemical attack the war-torn country has witnessed since 2013.
Trump on Wednesday firmly condemned the “heinous actions” in Syria, telling reporters that the attack “crossed a lot of lines for me.”
“I do change, and I am flexible, and I’m proud of that flexibility. And I will tell you that attack on children yesterday had a big impact on me,” the U.S. president said during a press conference at the White House with Jordan’s King Abdullah II. “It’s already happened, that my attitude towards Syria and Assad has changed very much.”
After conducting autopsies on victims who were brought to Turkish hospitals for treatment, Turkey’s health ministry confirmed Thursday that the patients had been exposed to sarin gas, a banned nerve agent.
A U.S. official also said the symptoms exhibited by the victims pointed to sarin gas.
The U.S. official told ABC News that a Syrian military fixed-wing aircraft dropped the chemical weapons on what was an underground hospital run by an al-Qaeda affiliated rebel group formerly known as Al-Nusra Front in the town of Khan Sheikhoun.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem firmly denied that his government used chemical weapons in Tuesday’s deadly attack. He told reporters at a televised press conference in the capital of Damascus on Thursday that “the Syrian Arab Army has never used chemical weapons and will not use chemical weapons against Syrians and even against terrorists.”
Moallem said rebels linked to al-Qaeda and ISIS have brought chemicals from Iraq and Turkey into the country and have been stockpiling them in residential areas.
On Wednesday, Russia’s Defense Ministry blamed Syrian rebels for the attack, saying that the Syrian air force struck a warehouse where opposition militants were storing chemical weapons — a statement that contradicts testimony from residents, doctors and activists on the ground.
Syria’s ongoing conflict
Tuesday’s chemical weapons attack is the latest atrocity in Syria’s ruinous six-year war.
What started as a local protest movement in Syria’s southern city of Dara’a expanded into a full-fledged civil war by 2012. ISIS, which grew out of al-Qaeda in Iraq, took root in northern and eastern Syria in 2013 after seizing swaths of territory in neighboring Iraq. The jihadist group is fighting to overthrow Assad’s regime and establish a caliphate.
The Syrian Civil War has pulled in the United States, Russia, Iran and almost all of Syria’s neighbors. It has become the largest humanitarian crisis since World War II, according to the U.N.
The United Nations Security Council is expected to debate a resolution on Syria today.
A text draft of that resolution, which was obtained by ABC News, would demand that Syria turn over data about flight plans and other information that could reveal who was responsible for Tuesday’s chemical weapons attack.
U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, on Friday denied a request from Bolivia for a closed session on Syria, insisting that “any country that chooses to defend the atrocities of the Syrian regime will have to do so in full public view.”
During the open session, Russian deputy ambassador to the United Nations, Vladimir Safronkov, condemned the “illegitimate” U.S. military action on the Syrian airbase, calling it a “flagrant violation” of international law. Safronkov called on the U.S. to instead “work together” with Syria and Russia to combat terrorism in the country.
“We call on the United States to immediately cease its aggression,” Safronkov said.
Haley, who is acting as the president of the U.N. Security Council for the month of April, spoke next. She hinted that Russia may have known about Syria’s illicit chemical weapons supply and may have even had a hand in Tuesday’s attack.
“Every time Assad has crossed the line of human decency, Russia has stood beside him,” Haley said. “The world is waiting for the Russian government to act responsibly in Syria.”
Syrian ambassador to the United Nations, Bashar Jaafari, said the United States acted “illegally against the Syrian Arab Army” and “without genuine knowledge of what happened” in the chemical weapons attack, or “without identifying who was responsible.”
Jaafari added that U.S. airstrikes harms counterterrorism efforts.
ABC News’ Benjamin Gittleson, Luis Martinez, Alexander Marquardt, Kirit Radia, Patrick Reevell, Joseph Simonetti and Marcus Wilford contributed to this report