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US Strikes Assad Airfield In Response to Chemical Attack

The guided-missile cruiser USS Philippine Sea launches Tomahawk cruise missile as seen from the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush in September, 2014. (US Navy photo)

US forces launched dozens of cruise missiles against Syrian military targets on Thursday in response to a deadly chemical attack attributed to embattled dictator Bashar al-Assad’s forces.

In the first deliberate US attack against the Assad regime, two American warships in the Mediterranean Sea fired more than 50 Tomahawk cruise missiles at the al-Shairat airfield in Homs province, NBC News reports. US officials believe the airfield was used by Syrian troops to launch Tuesday’s attack.

“Tonight, I ordered a targeted military strike on the air base in Syria from where the chemical attack was launched,” President Donald Trump said at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Florida. “It is in this vital national security interest of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons.”

“Years of previous attempts at changing Assad’s behavior have all failed, and failed very dramatically,” the president added. “As a result, the refugee crisis continues to deepen, and the region continues to destabilize, threatening the United States and its allies.”

BBC News reports at least 84 people were killed, and hundreds more injured, after what witnesses said were fixed-wing warplanes belonging to the Syrian air force attacked Khan Sheikhoun, about 50km (30 miles) south of the city of Idlib, while many people were still asleep on Tuesday morning. ABC News reports the attack struck an underground hospital run by the al-Qaeda-linked Islamist militant group formerly known as al-Nusra Front. Witnesses described a yellow mushroom cloud followed by symptoms consistent with exposure to chemical weapons. Doctors from the Syrian-American Medical Society (SAMS) who were in the area of the attack said victims exhibited “constricted (or ‘pinpoint’) pupils, foaming at the mouth, and the loss of consciousness, slow heart rate, slow breathing, vomiting, muscles spasms and other neurological symptoms consistent with nerve agents.”

“The symptoms described are consistent with exposure to Sarin or some other organophosphorus chemical,” Ralf Trapp, a consultant formerly with the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), told New Scientist. “As some of the victims have been moved to Turkey, it may be possible to acquire biomedical samples from them to identify telltale chemical compounds formed by sarin reacting with molecules in the blood.”

The Turkish Health Ministry said preliminary tests indicated the nerve agent Sarin was used in the attack, although this has not been independently confirmed.

Thursday’s cruise missile attack — which US officials said targeted aircraft and infrastructure, not people — marks a dramatic reversal from the Trump administration’s earlier position, held until just up to the attack, that it would not target the Assad regime. In Turkey on March 30, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Assad’s fate “will be decided by the Syrian people,” and on the same day United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley stated at UN headquarters in New York that “our priority is no longer to sit there and focus on getting Assad out.”

Trump’s first response to the horrific chemical attack was to blame his predecessor, Barack Obama. “These heinous actions by the Bashar al-Assad regime are a consequence of the last administration’s weakness and irresolution,” Trump said in a statement. “President Obama said in 2012 that he would establish a ‘red line’ against the use of chemical weapons and then did nothing.” However, Trump also repeatedly urged Obama to not attack Syria, even in the wake of multiple chemical attacks in 2013.

The president’s tone changed by Wednesday, when he said the “attack on children yesterday had a big impact on me” and that his “attitude toward Syria and Assad has changed very much.” Critics wondered what, if any, effect the deaths of hundreds of innocent Syrian, Iraqi, Somali, Yemeni and Afghan civilians — including scores of children — caused by US bombs and bullets since Trump took office have had on the president. There has been a dramatic increase in the number of innocent people killed by US forces in recent months; a reflection, observers say, of Trump’s campaign promise to “bomb the shit out of” Islamic State (IS) fighters and kill their families.

There is no immediate word on Syrian or Russian casualties from Thursday’s US cruise missile attack. Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis said Russia was warned about the strike. “Russian forces were notified in advance of the strike using the established deconfliction line,” Davis said, according to the New York Times. “Military planners took precautions to minimize risk to Russian or Syrian personnel located at the airfield.”

At the UN, Ambassador Haley partially blamed Moscow for the chemical attack. “Russia cannot escape responsibility for this,” she said. “They chose to close their eyes to the barbarity. They defied the conscience of the world.” Russian President Vladimir Putin, Assad’s staunchest ally, retorted “it was unacceptable to bring accusations against anyone until a thorough and impartial international investigation was conducted,” according to a Kremlin statement. Tillerson, in turn, urged Russia to “consider carefully their continued support of the Assad regime.”

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem firmly denied his government has ever used chemical weapons during the six-year civil war. “The Syrian Arab Army has never used chemical weapons and will not use chemical weapons against Syrians and even against terrorists,” Moallem asserted at a press conference in the capital Damascus on Thursday. Moallem accused rebels linked to al-Qaeda and IS of smuggling chemical weapons into Syria from Iraq and Turkey and stockpiling them in residential neighborhoods.

UN human rights investigators concluded in early 2014 that chemical weapons from Syrian military stockpiles were used in three separate attacks the previous year: in Khan al-Assal near Aleppo in March, at Saraqeb in April and in the Damascus suburb of al-Ghouta in August, the latter which left more than 1,400 people dead.

Although Thursday’s cruise missile strike was the first time the US deliberately attacked Assad’s forces, Syrian military leaders are still seething over what the Obama administration called an “intelligence failure” in which US warplanes bombed regime troops last September, killing 62. Such incidents underscore the confusion and complexity that characterize the Syrian civil war, with has pitted the Russian- and Iranian-backed Assad regime against disparate rebel groups including Islamists like al-Qaeda and IS and others, some backed by the United States and numerous NATO allies, Australia and Jordan. The raging conflict has left more than 400,000 people dead — most of them at the hands of regime forces — and has displaced more than 5 million people in what has become the world’s worst refugee crisis since World War II.

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