The United States, France and the United Kingdom on Friday conducted a wave of coordinated airstrikes in Syria in response to a deadly chemical weapon attack Saturday on the town of Douma.
President Donald Trump announced the operation in a Friday night news conference and detailed that the military campaign hit targets associated with the chemical weapon capabilities of the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
"The purpose of our actions tonight is to establish a strong deterrent against the production, spread and use of chemical weapons. We are prepared to sustain this response until the Syrian regime stops its use of prohibited chemical agents," Trump told the American people.
"On April 7, dozens of men, women and children were massacred in Douma, with the use of a chemical weapon in a total violation of international rules .... The red line established by France in May 2017 was crossed," French President Emmanuel Macron said later Friday.
"The fact of this attack should surprise no-one," British Prime Minister Theresa May added in a statement. "The Syrian Regime has a history of using chemical weapons against its own people in the most cruel and abhorrent way .... This persistent pattern of behavior must be stopped ― not just to protect innocent people in Syria from the horrific deaths and casualties caused by chemical weapons, but also because we cannot allow the erosion of the international norm that prevents the use of these weapons."
Minutes after Trump's announcement, journalists from Reuters and The Associated Press reported hearing loud blasts over Damascus, the Syrian capital.
The trilateral operation started about 9 p.m. EDT and focused on targets associated with the Syrian regime's chemical weapon program, Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, later confirmed in an eveningnews conference. The wave of airstrikes hit a scientific research center in the greater Damascus area, a chemical weapon storage facility west of Homs and a weapon storage facility and a command post close to the facility near Homs.
The U.S. military detected Syrian surface-to-air missile activity in response. There was no indication of U.S. losses in the strikes Friday evening, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis noted.
Friday evening's actions were a response to a chemical weapon attack on the town of Douma, in eastern Ghouta, last Saturday. The attack killed at least 70 people and rebel fighters were forced to relinquish control of the town to forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad shortly after.
Although Damascus, Moscow and Tehran still deny that the chemical attack was Assad's doing, U.S. officials say they have intelligence proving a chemical attack did occur and that U.S. and foreign intelligence indicate the Syrian government was behind the attack. The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, meanwhile, confirmed Tuesday it was sending a fact-finding mission to investigate the attack in Syria.
Trump had called the weekend attack "sick" and "atrocious," and said Syria and its allies Russia and Iran would "pay a price."
On Friday, Trump once again called out Assad's allies. "To Iran and Russia I ask, what kind of nation wants to be associated with the mass murder of men women and children? The nations of the world can be judged by the friends they keep. ... Russia must decide if it will continue down this dark path or if it will join with civilized nations as a source for stability and peace.
Dunford said the U.S. had identified its targets to mitigate the risks of Russian forces being involved, but the U.S. military did not coordinate Friday's operation with the Russians nor did it notify them beforehand.
The Russian embassy in the U.S. warned that Friday's strikes "will not be left without consequences." But Mattis said that the U.S. had not detected any retaliatory action from Russia or Iran so far.
Syrian government forces had taken precautions at military bases throughout the week in anticipation of possible strikes. There were reports that various air bases had been evacuated.
Trump ordered cruise missile strikes on a Syrian air base almost exactly one year ago following a chemical attack on civilians in the town of Khan Sheikhoun that the U.S. blamed on Assad. Experts said the U.S. retaliation last year did little to deter Assad's campaign against his own people.
U.S. military leaders stressed on Friday that the new operation was much broader in scope and was aimed at debilitating Assad's chemical weapon program in the long run.
It remains unclear, however, whether the latest strikes will be able to convince Assad and his powerful supporters that they must reconsider their approach.
In his efforts to sustain his rule and return Syria to his control, Assad has adopted a winner-takes-all strategy that can bear any cost regardless of international condemnation. More than 1,000 people have been killed in eastern Ghouta in the past two weeks, according to Doctors Without Borders. The United Nations refugee agency estimates that more than 133,000 people have fled the region near Damascus in the past month.
Both Russia and Iran are likely to continue their support of Assad. Their presence deters broader international action by raising the prospect of a major escalation.
The chief U.S. partner in the country, the Syrian Kurdish militia known as the YPG, remains uncertain about American intentions. And U.S. work on reconstruction to prevent the return of ISIS is ongoing but could turn off any time.
Former President Barack Obama, now remembered for promising military action if Assad crossed the "red line" of using chemical weapons, contemplated a strike in 2013. But Obama sought congressional approval and the strike never happened.
On Friday, before Trump had announced the operation, 88 House lawmakers challenged his legal authority to launch attacks against the Syrian regime without congressional approval. Republican Rep. Justin Amash (Mich.) later called the airstrikes "unconstitutional, illegal and reckless."
Trump had set a path toward retaliation immediately after Saturday's reports of a chemical attack. "If President Obama had crossed his stated Red Line In The Sand, the Syrian disaster would have ended long ago!" he tweeted Sunday. "Animal Assad would have been history!"
Trump's action further muddies his own approach to Syria. Just last week, he floated the possibility of imminently withdrawing the 2,000 U.S. troops stationed in the country. His own top military advisers, meanwhile, offered a contradictory message, implying that the U.S. still has plenty to do to root out the self-described Islamic State.
Akbar Ahmed contributed reporting.