WASHINGTON — The United States and European allies launched strikes Friday against Syrian research, storage and military targets as President Donald Trump sought to punish President Bashar Assad for a suspected chemical attack near Damascus last weekend that killed more than 40 people.
Britain and France joined the United States in the strikes in a coordinated operation that was intended to show Western resolve in the face of what the leaders of the three nations called persistent violations of international law. Trump characterized it as the beginning of a sustained effort to force Assad to stop using banned weapons.
“These are not the actions of a man,” Trump said of last weekend’s attack in a televised address from the White House Diplomatic Room. “They are crimes of a monster instead.”
While he has talked as recently as last week about pulling U.S. troops out of Syria, he vowed to remain committed to the goal of preventing further attacks with deadly poisons. “We are prepared to sustain this response until the Syrian regime stops its use of prohibited chemical agents,” Trump said.
The strikes, carried with ship-based cruise missiles and manned aircraft, targeted three facilities associated with Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal, including a scientific research facility around Damascus, a chemical weapons storage facility around Homs alleged to be used for sarin gas and a nearby command post, the Pentagon said.
The Syrian Observatory said the Syrian army’s 4th Division and Republican Guard was among the targets.
Residents of Damascus, the capital, woke to the sounds of multiple explosions shaking the city before the dawn call to prayer. The city and the hills are surrounded by military facilities, and it appeared that these were among the first targets.
Syrian state television said government air defense systems were responding to “the American aggression” and aired video of missiles being fired into a dark night sky. It was not clear if they hit anything. It reported that 13 missiles had been shot down by Syrian air defenses near Al-Kiswa, a town south of Damascus.
The targets were chosen to minimize the risk of accidentally hitting Russian troops stationed in Syria, according to Gen. James F. Dunford Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told reporters at the Pentagon on Friday night that the strike was completed and was designed as a one-night operation. “Right now this is a one-time shot and I believe it has sent a very strong message to dissuade him to deter him from doing it again,” he said.
Trump called on Syria’s patrons in Russia and Iran to force Assad to halt the use of poison gas in the seven-year civil war that has wracked his country.
“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. No nation can succeed in the long run by supporting rogue states, brutal tyrants and murderous dictators.”
The strikes risked pulling the United States deeper into the complex, multisided war in Syria from which Trump only last week said he wanted to withdraw. They also raised the possibility of confrontation with Russia and Iran, both of which have military forces in Syria to support Assad.
In choosing to strike, it appeared that Trump’s desire to punish Assad for what he called a “barbaric act” — and make good on his tweets promising action this week — outweighed his desire to limit the U.S. military involvement in the conflict, at least in the short term.
The strikes marked the second time that Trump has attacked Syria to punish the government after it was accused of using chemical weapons. The White House had sought to craft a response that would be more robust than the attack in April 2017, when the United States fired 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at a Syrian air base that was back in use a day later.
While France and Britain joined the United States in retaliating for the suspected chemical attack in the town of Douma outside Damascus last Saturday, Germany refused to take part, even though Chancellor Angela Merkel called the use of chemical weapons “unacceptable.”
Prime Minister Theresa May of Britain said Syria had left the allies no choice. “This persistent pattern of behavior must be stopped — not just to protect innocent people in Syria from the horrific deaths and casualties caused by chemical weapons but also because we cannot allow the erosion of the international norm that prevents the use of these weapons,” she said.
But she also emphasized the limits of the operation’s goals, reflecting the reluctance in London as well as Washington to become too immersed in the fratricidal war in Syria.
“This is not about intervening in a civil war,” she said. “It is not about regime change. It is about a limited and targeted strike that does not further escalate tensions in the region and that does everything possible to prevent civilian casualties.”
British defense officials said four Royal Air Force Tornado GR4s participated in the strike, launching Storm Shadow missiles at a military facility about 15 miles west of Homs where they said Syria was believed to keep chemical weapon precursors stockpiled in violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention.