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Air strikes on Syria hit heart of chemical weapons program, Pentagon says

Debris surround the Syrian Scientific Research Center which was attacked by U.S., British and French military strikes to punish President Bashar Assad for suspected chemical attack against civilians, in Barzeh, near Damascus, Syria, Saturday, April 14, 2018. AP Photo/Hassan Ammar

Hassan Ammar/The Associated Press

U.S. President Donald Trump is declaring “mission accomplished” on U.S. and allied airstrikes in Syria, and his administration says it is “locked and loaded” to bomb President Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons program again if Damascus continues to use poison gas on the battlefield.

What we know so far about the strikes in Syria

Assad defiant as Putin slams U.S.-led strike on Syria

Opinion: No, Trump isn’t suddenly concerned with Assad’s war crimes

The Pentagon said Saturday that every one of the 103 missiles fired by U.S., U.K. and French forces appears to have got through to their targets – a trio of Syrian government chemical facilities – contradicting claims by Syrian ally Russia that Mr. Assad’s forces had shot down 71 of the projectiles.

American officials also warned of a Kremlin disinformation campaign in the wake of the bombings, including a 2,000 per cent increase in activity by Russian internet trolls.

The moves showed an increased willingness by the Trump administration to openly confront Russian President Vladimir Putin, even as Mr. Trump’s circle remains embroiled in an investigation over whether it colluded with Moscow to tip the 2016 election.

Washington, however, also sought to emphasize how limited the airstrikes were: Both Pentagon officials and Mr. Trump’s envoy to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, made explicit that the bombings were only meant to warn Mr. Assad away from using chemical weapons. They were not an attempt to overthrow his government – a move that would risk provoking a serious response from Mr. Putin.

The U.S. and its allies carried out the bombing after accusing Syria of using chlorine and possibly sarin gas a week ago as it retook the Damascus suburb of Douma from rebel forces.

“A perfectly executed strike last night. Thank you to France and the United Kingdom for their wisdom and the power of their fine Military. Could not have had a better result. Mission Accomplished!” Mr. Trump tweeted Saturday morning.

Mr. Trump’s choice of words is loaded: Former president George W. Bush famously stood on an aircraft carrier on May 1, 2003 with a “mission accomplished” banner behind him to declare victory in the U.S. invasion of Iraq. The country, however, promptly descended into civil war and, fifteen years later, American troops are still there.

At a Pentagon briefing shortly after, however, officials stood by the phrase.

“Last night’s operations were very successful. We met our objectives. We hit the sites – the heart of the chemical weapons program. So it was mission accomplished,” defence department spokeswoman Dana White said.

Lieutenant General Kenneth McKenzie said the allies’ missiles destroyed all three buildings at the Barzah research centre near Damascus, believed to be a development and production site for chemical weapons, as well as a gas storage facility and bunker near the city of Homs.

U.S. Marine Lt. Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr. speaks during a news briefing at the Pentagon April 14, 2018 in Arlington, Virginia.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

Lt.-Gen. McKenzie said Syria’s attempts to intercept the allies were ineffective and, for the most part, Mr. Assad’s forces didn’t even get their missiles off the ground until after the airstrikes were over. He said there was no indication Russia deployed its air defences at all.

Ms. White warned, however, about the dangers of Russian propaganda, which is claiming that the airstrikes were ineffective and that there is no evidence Mr. Assad used poison gas.

Moscow has been accused of employing “troll farms,” companies where people set up fake Twitter, Facebook and Instagram accounts to push out pro-Russia messages and spread disinformation. Two months ago, special counsel Robert Mueller charged 13 people connected to one such farm, the Internet Research Agency, for trying to tip the 2016 election by posing as Americans on social media.

Mr. Putin on Saturday accused the U.S. of breaking international law with its airstrikes by not waiting for a team from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons – which arrived in Syria on Friday – to ascertain whether Mr. Assad had used chemical weapons.

“Through its actions, the U.S. makes the already catastrophic humanitarian situation in Syria even worse and brings suffering to civilians,” the Russian leader said in a statement.

The Russian military said it would consider supplying Mr. Assad with its advanced S-300 surface-to-air missile systems, making Western bombing campaigns much harder and threatening Israel’s ability to confront Iran’s growing presence in Syria.

At a United Nations security council meeting in New York, convened at Russia’s behest, Mr. Putin’s envoy claimed “foreign intelligence services” had conspired to fake the gas attack in Syria – during which graphic images showed victims, including children, foaming at the mouth – and said Russian experts found no evidence of chemical weapons.

Vassily Nebenzia further accused the U.S. of leading “an illegal military adventure” and engaging in international “hooliganism.”

“The pictures of dead children were not fake news,” shot back Ms. Haley. “They were the results of the Syrian regime’s barbaric inhumanity.”

American Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley pictured during a Security Council meeting on the situation in Syria, Saturday, April 14, 2018 at United Nations headquarters. AP Photo/Mary Altaffer

Mary Altaffer/The Associated Press

The American UN Ambassador said her country is fully prepared to hit Mr. Assad again if he does not change his tactics.

“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,’” she said. “When our President draws a red line, our President enforces the red line.”

Ms. Haley was careful, however, to specify that the U.S. is not attempting to get involved in the Syrian civil war: The bombing was meant only to stop the use of chemical weapons.

Vice-President Mike Pence offered a similar message in a meeting with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who has expressed support for the airstrikes.

Speaking on the sidelines of the Summit of the Americas in Peru Saturday, where Mr. Pence is filling in for Mr. Trump, the Vice-President told the Prime Minister that Washington has “made it clear to the world” that it “will not tolerate these chemical weapons” and is “prepared to sustain this effort if necessary.”

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, right, shakes hands with Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau after a bilateral meeting at the Summit of the Americas in Lima, Peru, Saturday, April 14, 2018. (AP Photo/Karel Navarro)

Karel Navarro/The Associated Press

Mr. Trump has expressed admiration for Mr. Putin, as well as his desire for the U.S. to foster friendlier relations with Moscow. But he has denied any collusion between his campaign and the Kremlin, as Mr. Mueller’s probe has zeroed in on several Trump associates with close ties to the Kremlin.

Former U.S. secretary of state Madeleine Albright said Mr. Trump’s increasing willingness to stand up to Mr. Putin over his support for Mr. Assad is encouraging. But she worried that there isn’t a larger plan for what the White House is hoping to achieve in chaotic Syria.

“I am pleased now that Trump, who seemed to be entranced by the way that Putin behaved…has now recognized the fact that he is using his influence to support the criminal acts of Bashar al-Assad,” she said in an interview before the airstrikes. “But we can’t just do one-off things without thinking through what the political settlement might look like, what are the various steps that have to be taken.”

Rex Brynen, a Middle East expert at McGill University, said the limited airstrikes will not have much effect on Mr. Assad’s ability to keep fighting. For one, he said, the regime likely has gas in other locations. For another, it is not entirely clear Mr. Putin controls Mr. Assad’s operational decisions to the extent that the West thinks – or that Mr. Assad even makes decisions on the use of chemical weapons personally. In chaotic Syria, Mr. Assad’s regional commanders likely have their own supplies of gas and decide when to use them, he said.

The central usefulness of the airstrikes, Mr. Brynen said, is to let the world know that the use of chemical weapons will not go unchallenged. By hitting Mr. Assad, the U.S. and its allies are telling other military leaders that they cannot follow Damascus’s example without repercussions.

“Normalizing the use of chemical weapons in insurgencies is not a good thing. This doesn’t really have to do with Syria specifically,” he said. “This has to do with spelling out to anyone who would use gas that there’s a cost.”

Deploying the “mission accomplished” message is a risky move for Mr. Trump, Mr. Brynen said.

“It’s almost an invitation to the Syrians to do this again,” he said. “They know the media would hang it around his neck.”

Syria strikes: WHAT WE KNOW

The U.S., Britain and France launched coordinated strikes against targets within Syria in response to the alleged Douma chemical weapons attack by the forces of President Bashar al-Assad

Alleged chemical

weapons facilities

Rebel-held

areas

Islamic State

Hama

Homs

T4

Shayrat

LEBANON

SYRIA

Med.

Sea

Dumayr

Mezzeh

Marj Ruhayyil

Damascus

0

100

ISRAEL

KM

Homs: Four Royal Air Force Tornado GR4s launch Storm Shadow fire-and-forget missiles at storage facility 24km west of Homs

Homs: French Mirage and Rafale fighter jets attack chemical weapons equipment storage and command and control centre at Shayrat

Zabadani

Dumayr

Jamraya

Barzeh

LEBANON

Dumayr airbase

Douma

DAMASCUS

Mezzeh

airbase

Damascus

International

Airport

SYRIA

Marj

Ruhayyil

airbase

0

15

KM

Damascus: Guided missile destroyer USS Donald Cook and Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser fire cruise missiles at Centre d’Études et de Recherches Scientifiques in suburb of Jamraya. Storage facility and command centre at Barzeh also attacked

the globe and mail, Sources: graphic news via Reuters; Pentagon; IICT; AFP; Google Earth

Syria strikes: WHAT WE KNOW

The U.S., Britain and France launched coordinated strikes against targets within Syria in response to the alleged Douma chemical weapons attack by the forces of President Bashar al-Assad

Alleged chemical

weapons facilities

Rebel-held

areas

Islamic State

Homs: Four Royal Air Force Tornado GR4s launch Storm Shadow fire-and-forget missiles at storage facility 24km west of Homs

Hama

Homs

T4

Shayrat

LEBANON

SYRIA

Med.

Sea

Dumayr

Homs: French Mirage and Rafale fighter jets attack chemical weapons equipment storage and command and control centre at Shayrat

Mezzeh

Marj Ruhayyil

Damascus

0

100

ISRAEL

KM

Zabadani

Dumayr

Jamraya

Dumayr airbase

Douma

Barzeh

LEBANON

April 7: Suspected

chemical attack on town of Douma leaves estimated

70 people dead

DAMASCUS

Mezzeh

airbase

SYRIA

Damascus

International

Airport

Marj

Ruhayyil

airbase

0

15

KM

Damascus: Guided missile destroyer USS Donald Cook and Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser fire cruise missiles at Centre d’Études et de Recherches Scientifiques in suburb of Jamraya. Storage facility and command centre at Barzeh also attacked

the globe and mail, Sources: graphic news via Reuters; Pentagon; IICT; AFP; Google Earth

What we know about the Syria strikes

The U.S., Britain and France launched coordinated strikes against targets

within Syria in response to the alleged Douma chemical weapons attack

by the forces of President Bashar al-Assad

Alleged chemical

weapons facilities

Rebel-held

areas

Islamic State

Hama

Centre d’Études et de

Recherches Scientifiques

alleged chemical and biological weapons research facility

Homs

T4

Shayrat

LEBANON

SYRIA

Med.

Sea

Dumayr

Mezzeh

Marj Ruhayyil

Damascus

0

100

ISRAEL

KM

Homs: Four Royal Air Force Tornado GR4s launch Storm Shadow fire-and-forget missiles at storage facility 24km west of Homs

Homs: French Mirage and Rafale fighter jets attack chemical weapons equipment storage and command and control centre at Shayrat

Zabadani

Dumayr

Jamraya

Dumayr airbase

Douma

Barzeh

LEBANON

April 7: Suspected

chemical attack on

town of Douma

leaves estimated

70 people dead

DAMASCUS

Mezzeh

airbase

Damascus

International

Airport

Damascus: Guided missile destroyer USS Donald Cook and Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser fire cruise missiles at Centre d’Études et de Recherches Scientifiques in suburb of Jamraya. Storage facility and command centre at Barzeh also attacked

3

0

15

KM

Marj

Ruhayyil

airbase

the globe and mail, Sources: graphic news via Reuters; Pentagon; IICT; AFP; Google Earth

U.S. President Donald Trump announced the military action in Syria, but French and British warplanes played a key role in the strikes early on Saturday. Rosanna Philpott reports Reuters
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