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Syria missile strikes: US launches first direct military action against Assad

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The US military has launched a cruise missile attack on a Syrian airfield in response to Bashar al-Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons this week, marking the first time the US has become a direct combatant against the Syrian regime.

The US move drew an angry response from Russia, which described the strike as an “aggression against a sovereign state in violation of international law”.

The Russian foreign ministry has since announced that it was suspending a deal with the US to exchange information about military flights to avoid incidents in the crowded skies over Syria. Moscow has also called for a meeting of the UN security council to discuss the strikes.

Syrian officials said at least seven people were killed and nine wounded in US missile attack.

Russia’s foreign minister said no Russian service personnel were hurt in the strike. Speaking during a trip to Uzbekistan, Sergei Lavrov said the strike was launched on an “absolutely made-up pretext”, adding: “It reminds me of the situation in 2003 when the United States and Britain, along with some of their allies, attacked Iraq.”

He said Russia would demand Washington explain why it conducted the strikes. “I hope this provocation will not lead to irreparable damage [to US-Russian ties],” Lavrov said.

Donald Trump, who for years signalled he was comfortable with Assad remaining in power, abruptly switched course after seeing images of children gassed to death in Idlib province after Assad used chemical weapons against Syrian civilians.

The US strike saw 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles launched from the guided-missile destroyers USS Ross and USS Porter in the eastern Mediterranean.

An airbase at Shayrat, near Homs, was targeted, signalling a limited initial engagement on a target the military said was used to launch the chemical attack.

Although the US targeted some of Syria’s air defenses, it did not do so largely beyond Shayrat or in a sustained barrage, as it would typically do before launching a concerted air campaign. Instead, the Pentagon said, it attacked “aircraft, hardened aircraft shelters, petroleum and logistical storage, ammunition supply bunkers, air defense systems, and radars” at the airfield.

Russian state TV aired footage claiming to show the damage from the US strikes at the Syrian airbase. It showed craters and pockmarks left by explosions and said nine Syrian air force jets had been destroyed.’

Though Trump lacked congressional and international authorisation for the strike, prominent US politicians immediately gave him political cover.

The president said on Thursday night at his Mar-a-Lago resort that he had ordered a “targeted military strike on the airfield in Syria from where the chemical attack was launched”.

After a frantic day of consultation with his military advisers, including the defense secretary, James Mattis, and the national security adviser, HR McMaster, Trump said it was a “vital national security interest” of the US to prevent “the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons” after previous efforts to change Assad’s behavior “had failed, and failed very dramatically”.

Trump also called on the international community to “join us in seeking to end the slaughter and bloodshed in Syria and also to end terrorism of all kinds and all types”, leaving it unclear whether the US objective was retaliation for the chemical assault, destruction of Assad’s chemical stockpiles or a push to oust Assad from power.

For its part, the Pentagon said the strike “was intended to deter the regime from using chemical weapons again”.

Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said in a statement carried by Russian news agencies that the president believed the US had carried out the strikes under a “far-fetched pretext”. Russia has argued that the death of civilians in Khan Sheikhun resulted from Syrian forces hitting a rebel chemical arsenal there, but the Guardian visited the attack site and found no evidence for this claim.

Dozens of civilians, including 10 children, were killed, apparently by a chemical attack on Khan Sheikhun, in a region held by rebels who oppose Assad’s regime.

On Friday, sources told the Guardian US intelligence officials believed Russian personnel were at Shayrat airbase when the chemical agent was loaded on to a Syrian jet. They have not established whether the Russians knew it was happening.

The base covers an area of more than 8 sq km (3 sq miles) and has two runways and dozens of buildings, silos and storage facilities.

“The places we targeted were the things that made the airfield operate. It’s the petroleum facilities, it’s the aircraft radar, what they use for takeoff and landing, as well as air-defense radar,” Davis said. “It’s the sites that are specific to making it operate, as well as hangars and aircraft themselves.”

For years, defense analysts have warned the US against attacking Assad without a plan for what it seeks to achieve or what a post-Assad Syria might look like.

Davis said precautions were taken to avoid killing Russian personnel on their compound at Shayrat, citing the timing of the attack and the choice of targets unlikely to have people inside. All the aircraft attacked were Syrian, he said.

Neither the US Congress nor the UN have authorized war against Assad. Mary Ellen O’Connell, an international law scholar at the University of Notre Dame, said Trump did not have a legal basis for military action.