U.S., British and French forces struck Syria with more than 100 missiles on Saturday in the first coordinated Western strikes against the Damascus government, targeting what they said were chemical weapons sites in retaliation for a suspected poison gas attack.
U.S. President Donald Trump announced the military action from the White House, saying the three allies had “marshaled their righteous power against barbarism and brutality”.
Later he tweeted: “Mission accomplished”.
The bombing represents a major escalation in the West’s confrontation with Assad’s superpower ally Russia, but is unlikely to alter the course of a multi-sided war that has killed at least half a million people in the past seven years.
That in turn raises the question of where Western countries go from here, after a volley of strikes denounced by Damascus and Moscow as at once both reckless and pointless.
By morning, the Western countries said their bombing was over for now. Syria released video of the wreckage of a bombed-out research lab, but also of President Bashar al-Assad arriving at work as usual, with the caption “Morning of resilience”.
There were no immediate reports of casualties. Damascus’s allies saying the buildings hit had been evacuated in advance.
Russia had promised to respond to any attack on its ally, and said on Saturday that Syrian air defenses had intercepted 71 of the missiles fired.
But the Pentagon said the United States had “deconfliction” contacts with Russia before and after the strikes, that Syrian air defense systems had been largely ineffective and there was no indication that Russian systems had been employed.
British Prime Minister Theresa May described the strike as “limited and targeted”, with no intention of toppling Assad or intervening more widely in the war. She authorized British action after intelligence showed Assad’s government was to blame for gassing the Damascus suburb of Douma a week ago, she said.
In a speech, she gave a vivid description of the victims of the alleged chemical strike that killed scores, huddling in basements as gas rained down. She said Russia had thwarted diplomatic efforts to halt Assad’s use of poison gas, leaving no option but force.
French President Emmanuel Macron said the strikes had been limited so far to Syria’s chemical weapons facilities. Paris released a dossier that it said showed Damascus was to blame for the poison gas attack on Douma, the last town holding out in a rebel-held swathe of territory near Damascus that government forces have recaptured this year.
Washington described its targets as a center near Damascus for the research, development, production and testing of chemical and biological weapons, a chemical weapons storage site near the city of Homs, and another site near Homs that stored chemical weapons equipment and housed a command post.
U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis called the strikes a “one-time shot”, although Trump raised the prospect of further strikes if Assad’s government again used chemical weapons.
“We are prepared to sustain this response until the Syrian regime stops its use of prohibited chemical agents,” the U.S. president said in a televised address.
The Pentagon said there had been chemical weapons agents at one of the targets, and that, although there were other parts to Syria’s chemical weapons system, the strikes had significantly crippled its ability to produce such weapons.
Russian President Vladimir Putin called for a meeting of the U.N. Security Council to discuss what Moscow decried as an unjustified attack on a sovereign state. Diplomats said the meeting would take place in New York at 11 a.m. (1500 GMT).
Syrian state media called the attack a “flagrant violation of international law”. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called it a crime and the Western leaders criminals.
Inspectors from the global chemical weapons watchdog OPCW were due to try to visit Douma later on Saturday to inspect the site of the suspected gas attack on April 7. Moscow condemned the Western states for refusing to wait for their findings.
Russia, whose relations with the West have deteriorated to levels of Cold War-era hostility, has denied any gas attack took place in Douma and even accused Britain of staging it to whip up anti-Russian hysteria.
But despite responding outwardly with fury to Saturday’s attack, Damascus and its allies also made clear that they considered it a one-off, unlikely to meaningfully harm Assad.
A senior official in a regional alliance that backs Damascus told Reuters the sites that were targeted had been evacuated days ago thanks to a warning from Russia.
“If it is finished, and there is no second round, it will be considered limited,” the official said.
Dmitry Belik, a Russian member of parliament who was in Damascus and witnessed the strikes, told Reuters: “The attack was more of a psychological nature rather than practical. Luckily there are no substantial losses or damages.”
At least six loud explosions were heard in Damascus and smoke rose over the city, according to a Reuters witness. A second witness said the Barzah district of Damascus was hit.
A scientific research lab in Barzah appeared to have been completely destroyed, according to footage from Syrian state TV station al-Ikhbariya. Smoke rose from piles of rubble, and a bus parked outside was heavily damaged.
But the Western intervention has virtually no chance of altering the military balance of power at a time when Assad is in his strongest position since the war’s early months.