Washington: The US launched a cruise missile attack against Syria two days after Bashar al-Assad’s regime used poison gas to kill scores of civilians, an act that drew international condemnation and that President Donald Trump called “‘an affront to humanity."

“Tonight I ordered a targeted military strike on the airfield in Syria from where the chemical attack was launched," Trump told reporters on Thursday night at his Florida club, where he hosted Chinese President Xi Jinping earlier in the evening. He said the missile strike was in the “vital national security interest of the United States" and that he was compelled to act after more 70 men, women and children were killed by poison gas.

“It was a slow and brutal death for so many," he said.

The limited strike early Friday morning in Syria took aim at hangars, planes and fuel tanks at the Shayrat Airfield, according to US officials. The US struck the airfield with about 60 Raytheon Co. Tomahawk cruise missiles fired from two Navy destroyers in the Mediterranean Sea.

The task of military planners was made riskier by the presence of Russian forces in Syria to support Assad’s regime in its battle against rebel groups that include Islamic State and al-Qaeda fighters but also some backed by the US.

Vladimir Safronkov, Russia’s deputy UN ambassador, said before the strikes were made public that any US military action will have “negative consequences."

Also read | US strike on Syria: Russia, Iran call missile strikes aggression; Saudi, Israel welcome it

The decision to strike in Syria marked a stark reversal for Trump, who during his presidential campaign faulted past US leaders for getting embroiled in conflicts in the Middle East. But he said this week that deaths of children among the more that 70 killed in the 4 April attack, images of which were broadcast worldwide, crossed “beyond red lines" and changed his thinking.

It was also a departure from the approach of his predecessor, former President Barack Obama, who had weighed a military response in 2013 after Assad launched a sarin gas attack that killed more than 1,000 people near Damascus. Obama stepped back from military action after the parliament in the UK, a crucial ally, declined to participate and public support in the US waned.

Instead the US and Russia negotiated an agreement for Assad to surrender his chemical weapons stockpile, an accord that the Syrian government appears to have breached.

At the time, Trump repeatedly tweeted that the US shouldn’t get bogged down in Syria and that Obama shouldn’t act without approval from Congress. Trump didn’t get such a formal authorization vote before Thursday night’s strike.

The attack occurred while Trump was at his Florida estate after a dinner with Xi, where they were to discuss what to do about North Korea’s nuclear program and US-China trade disagreements. Travelling to Mar-a-Lago from Washington on Thursday, Trump spoke to reporters aboard Air Force One about Assad, saying “what happened in Syria is a disgrace to humanity. And he’s there, and I guess he’s running things. So something should happen."

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Soon after, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson appeared in a hastily arranged news conference in Florida — his first in the US since he was confirmed for the job — ostensibly to discuss Xi’s visit. But the real intent was to address the Syria issue, according to a State Department official who asked not to be identified because he wasn’t authorized to speak publicly about the matter.

The gas attack, Tillerson said, “violates all previous UN resolutions, violates international norms and long-held agreements between parties, including the Syrian regime, the Russian government, and all other members of the UN Security Council."

The attack “requires a serious response," he said. Tillerson also had stern words for Russia.

“It is very important that the Russian government consider carefully their continued support for the Assad regime," he said at the Palm Beach airport.

While Tillerson told reporters that “steps are under way" to mobilize a coalition to remove Assad, he said that effort would probably come after Islamic State terrorists in the country are defeated and some stability returns to the Middle East country.Syria’s six-year civil war has only become more complex in recent years. Russia intervened on Assad’s behalf in late 2015, adding to a fight that now includes Iranian, Turkish, Syrian and extremist forces.

Several Republican senators had pushed for a swift response, including Arizona’s John McCain, a longtime proponent of removing Assad, and Bob Corker of Tennessee, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee.

“I strongly supported military action against Syria in 2013 when they violated President Barack Obama’s red line," Republican Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas told CNN. “These are not just moral outrages. These are exactly the kinds of things that drive Arab Muslims into the hands of the Islamic state." The US forces conducting the strikes were aided by surveillance photos and electronic signals of airfields, command-and-control facilities and air defence systems gleaned during thousands of aircraft sorties over Iraq and Syria since 2014 when operations began against the Islamic State that later spread into Syria. The Obama administration when it contemplated strikes against Syria in 2013, also built a picture of Syria’s most vulnerable targets. At the United Nations, diplomats privately debated a resolution that would condemn the poison-gas attack and demand access to Syrian air bases by UN investigators. Russia, which has backed Assad militarily since late 2015, would probably veto that measure after putting forward a separate measure which wouldn’t compel Syria to provide such access.

At the UN Security Council on Wednesday, US ambassador Nikki Haley stood up at her desk to show diplomats photos of dying children gasping for air. She accused Russia of pushing a “false narrative" that blames rebel forces for the attack, and issued a new warning.

Safronkov, the Russian diplomat, said he’d been “very frank" in consultations with US officials.

“We have to think of negative consequences, and all responsibility of military action will be on the shoulders of those who initiated such doubtful and tragic enterprise," he told reporters at the UN.

Syria’s government said pilots bombed what turned out to be a rebel-controlled chemical weapons stockpile, while Russian officials on Wednesday said it’s too soon to assign blame for the attack. Nonetheless, it appeared before Thursday night’s missile strike that Russia’s support for Assad hadn’t diminished.

Tillerson’s talk of creating a coalition “gives the impression that in the West there is a rush to use the situation to take from Assad the success in turning around the situation in the country and attain their previous goal: removing him from power at any cost," Konstantin Kosachyov, chairman of international affairs committee in the Russian parliament’s upper house, said by email.

The State Department official said on Thursday afternoon that Tillerson would go to Moscow as planned for meetings with senior officials on 12 April. That visit was expected to include a meeting with President Vladimir Putin. Bloomberg

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