Beirut/London/Moscow: The US, UK and France sought to shore up international support Saturday after overnight strikes on Syria in retaliation for an apparent chemical weapons attack by Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
The allies successfully hit all three of their targets, the Pentagon said, deploying 105 missiles. The targets included chlorine and sarin gas research facilities and the allies’ met with no significant resistance from Syrian air defences, the Pentagon said, contradicting Russian claims that the majority of the missiles had been intercepted.
“A perfectly executed strike last night," President Donald Trump said Saturday in a tweet. “Mission Accomplished!"
In the aftermath of the attack, the western powers set out their justification for military action that was carried out without a mandate from the United Nations and in the face of criticism from Assad’s allies Russia and Iran. British Prime Minister Theresa May said the NATO powers had no alternative but to act after reports that a Syrian government helicopter dropped a barrel bomb with chemical agents on a civilian population near Damascus a week ago
“We would have preferred an alternative path, but in this case there was none,’’ May told reporters in London Saturday morning. “We cannot allow the use of chemical weapons to become normalized."
French President Emmanuel Macron said the action was narrowly focused on Syria’s chemical weapons facilities while May insisted there was no intention to interfere in the broader civil war that has engulfed the country since 2011.
All three leaders said the use of chemical agents gave them a moral obligation to act.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said his country would convene an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council to discuss the actions of the US and its allies, while UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urged respect for the UN charter and international law. The UN Security Council is due to meet at 9am New York time, Agence-France Presse reported.
“An act of aggression against a sovereign state that is on the frontline in the fight against terrorism was committed without a mandate from the UN Security Council and in violation of the UN Charter and norms and principles of international law," Putin said in a Kremlin statement. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei said the attacks were a “crime.’’
Syria’s state-run news agency SANA reported at least three civilians were wounded in the strikes. In Damascus, it seemed like a fairly ordinary Saturday, except for small rallies in praise of Assad that formed in traffic circles and around fountains. Nationalist songs were played and people waved flags.
In a televised statement late Friday, Trump blasted both countries for supporting Assad.
“To Iran and to Russia I ask: What kind of a nation wants to be associated with the mass murder of innocent men, women and children?" he said. “The nations of the world can be judged by the friends they keep."
While the Pentagon said the strikes wouldn’t continue beyond Friday night, Trump warned that they could be repeated if Assad persisted with chemical attacks.
EU foreign-policy chief Federica Mogherini said the bloc “supports all efforts aimed at the prevention of the use of chemical weapons." Still, the EU’s goal is to prevent an escalation of the conflict, Mogherini said, calling for an immediate ceasefire and a “genuine political transition" in Syria. She urged Russia and Iran to help prevent any further use of chemical weapons by Assad’s regime.
Support from elsewhere in Europe was more muted, with Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni saying his country didn’t provide its usual logistical support to western military operations in the eastern Mediterranean. He described the attack as “measured."
Germany also did not take part, although Chancellor Angela Merkel issued a statement backing the action. Two US planes from a base in Spain provided logistical support, the Spanish defence ministry said.
China’s foreign ministry said it objected to the use of force and warned that it could complicate the situation in Syria.
Turkey, a Nato member with forces in northern Syria fighting Kurdish militants, welcomed the strikes and described them as a proper action against the Assad regime.
Israel housing minister Yoav Galant, a member of the coalition’s Kulanu party, said on his Twitter page: “The American attack is an important signal to the axis of evil -- Iran, Syria and Hezbollah -- a signal that says the use of chemical weapons crosses the red line against humanity and will not be tolerated.’’
US officials said they gave Russia no specific warnings of the attacks or the targets, but used the usual hotline with Moscow’s military to ensure the airspace was clear. Still, French defence minister Florence Parly told reporters early Saturday the country was not seeking a military escalation and had, with its allies, “made sure that the Russians were warned ahead."
Kamran Bokhari, a senior fellow with the Center for Global Policy in Washington, said the strikes appeared intended to avoid provoking Russia.
“Russia probably got an assurance that these strikes would only target the CW capability of the regime," he said.
Russia’s defence ministry said that none of the dozens of missiles and smart bombs fired over a period of about 90 minutes entered airspace guarded by advanced systems above Russian bases near the coast. There were no casualties, either Syrian or Russian, or serious damage inflicted, it said.
General Sergei Rudskoi told reporters in the Russian capital that two sites linked to Syria’s chemical weapons program that were targeted were partly destroyed though they have long been out of use and had no personnel or equipment, he said. Bloomberg