Updated at 2:30 a.m. ET
President Trump has launched airstrikes in Syria in response to deadly chemical attacks allegedly ordered by the country’s president, Bashar Assad, against his own people.
“Tonight I ordered a targeted military strike on the airfield in Syria from where the chemical attack was launched,” the president announced Thursday night from his Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Fla., where he is meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping. “It is in this vital national security interest of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons.”
The decision to launch airstrikes Thursday evening was a departure for Trump, who has been slow to embrace an interventionist foreign policy. The chemical attack has been seen as a key test of Trump’s leadership on the world stage.
The U.S. fired 59 Tomahawk missiles from the USS Porter and USS Ross destroyers in the Eastern Mediterranean against the Shayrat air base, where the U.S. says the planes that carried out a chemical weapons attack originated. The missiles targeted aircraft and aircraft shelters, ammunition, air defense systems and radars.
U.S. officials said planners did everything possible to avoid civilian casualties and are still doing battle damage assessment to determine the exact results of the raid.
Moscow says strike violates international law
Russia was warned in multiple conversations that this air base was going to be targeted, officials said. There were Russians at the base. Russian President Vladimir Putin has called the idea that Assad was behind the attacks simply “groundless accusations.”
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, in his regular Friday morning briefing, said the U.S. strike constituted “aggression against a sovereign state in violation of international law.”
Peskov said Russian President Vladimir Putin believed the strike was based on a “made-up pretext” to distract attention from civilian deaths in Iraq, an apparent reference to U.S. airstrikes in Mosul.
Yet Trump said Thursday night that “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 U.N. Security Council.” He concluded his statement by saying:
“Tonight I call on all civilized nations to join us in seeking to end the slaughter and bloodshed in Syria and also to end terrorism of all kinds and all types. We ask for God’s wisdom as we face the challenge of our very troubled world. We pray for the lives of the wounded and for the souls of those who passed. And we hope that as long as America stands for justice, that peace and harmony will, in the end, prevail.”
The chemical attacks earlier this week killed more than 100 Syrians, including many children. On Wednesday, Trump said that the attacks “crossed a lot of lines for me” and hinted that he might pursue some sort of military action in response.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told reporters in Florida after the president spoke that they had a “very high level of confidence that the attacks were carried out under aircraft under the direction of [Assad’s] regime” and a “very high confidence that the attacks involved the use of sarin nerve gas.”
White House national security adviser H.R. McMaster said at the briefing that the military planners took “great pains” to avoid risk to “third country nationals at that airport — I think you read Russians from that.”
“We weighed the risk associated with any military action, but we weighed that against the risk of inaction … which is the risk of [these] continued egregious, inhumane attacks on innocent civilians with chemical weapons.
“There were measures put in place to avoid hitting what we believe is a storage of sarin … [so] that it would not be ignited and cause a hazard to civilians or anyone else.”
In his initial response to the Syrian attacks on Tuesday, Trump cast blame on former President Barack Obama for failing to act enough on the situation and engaging after Assad first crossed the “red line” Obama drew following Assad’s use of chemical weapons in 2013.
But, as NPR’s Tamara Keith noted, Trump himself had argued then as a private citizen that the U.S. should not become engaged in the conflict.
Here are the president’s full remarks from Thursday night:
“On Tuesday Syrian President Bashar al-Assad launched a horrible chemical attack on innocent civilians using a deadly nerve agent. Assad choked out the lives of helpless men, women and children. It was a slow and brutal death for so many. Even beautiful babies were cruelly murdered at this very barbaric attack. No child of God should ever suffer such horror. Tonight I ordered a targeted military strike on the airfield in Syria from where the chemical attack was launched. It is in this vital national security interest of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons. 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 U.N. Security Council. Numerous previous attempts at changing Assad’s behavior have all failed, and failed very dramatically. As a result, the refugee crisis continues to deepen and the region continues to destabilize, threatening the United States and its allies. Tonight I call on all civilized nations to join us in seeking to end the slaughter and bloodshed in Syria and also to end terrorism of all kinds and all types. We ask for God’s wisdom as we face the challenge of our very troubled world. We pray for the lives of the wounded and for the souls of those who passed. And we hope that as long as America stands for justice, that peace and harmony will, in the end, prevail. Good night and God bless America and the entire world.”‘
Congressional reaction is mixed
House Intelligence Committee ranking member Adam Schiff, D-Calif., said the president needs to coordinate any future action with Congress:
“This strike will not hasten an end to the Assad regime, but it may deter its further use of chemical weapons. Nevertheless. this missile strike and the military action of our forces already in Syria have yet to be authorized by Congress. I will be reintroducing an authorization for use of military force against ISIS and al-Qaida when Congress returns to session. Congress cannot abdicate its responsibility any longer and should vote on any use of force not made in self-defense.”
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce, R-Calif., agreed:
“Assad was warned, repeatedly, by the U.S. and the U.N. that the intentional targeting of innocent men, women and children is intolerable. Now Assad has been caught red-handed carrying out another abhorrent chemical attack, and the administration has taken a measured response. Moving ahead, the administration must work with Congress and lay out clear policy goals for Syria and the region.”