The United States launched dozens of cruise missiles Thursday night at a Syrian airfield in response to what it believes was Syria’s use of banned chemical weapons that killed at least 100 people, the U.S. military said.
Two U.S. warships in the Mediterranean Sea, the USS Ross and the USS Porter, fired 59 Tomahawk missiles intended for a single target — Shayrat Airfield in Homs province in western Syria, the Defense Department said. That’s the airfield from which the United States believes the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad fired the banned weapons.
The Pentagon said people were not targeted, and there was no immediate word on casualties. U.S. officials told NBC News that aircraft and infrastructure at the site were hit, including the runway and gas fuel pumps.
“Assad choked out the lives of helpless men, women and children,” President Donald Trump said in remarks from Mar-a-Lago, his family compound 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,” said Trump, who called on other countries to end the bloodshed in Syria.
A White House official told NBC News that more than two dozen members of Congress were briefed by administration officials on the missile strike. Vice President Mike Pence returned to the White House after having gone home for dinner Thursday evening and monitored the events from the Situation Room, officials said.
Trump is in Florida for a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinpeng. Defense Secretary James Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and national security adviser H.R. McMaster traveled to Florida with him.
“We feel that the strike itself was proportional, because it was targeted at the facility that delivered this most recent chemical weapons attack,” Tillerson told reporters on Thursday night.
“There was a thorough examination of a wide range of options, and I think the president made the correct choice and made the correct decision,” Tillerson said.
Syrian television characterized the missile strike “as American aggression” Friday morning. But Ahrar Al Sham, the largest Syrian armed rebel group, told NBC News it “welcomes any U.S. intervention through surgical strikes that would deter the Assad regime capabilities to kill civilians and shorten the suffering of our people.”
Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a spokesman for the Defense Department, said initial assessments showed that the airfield was severely damaged, reducing Syria’s capability to deliver chemical weapons.
Tillerson and Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, have bluntly blamed Syria for the chemical weapons attack, whose victims included at least 25 children.
“We have a very high level of confidence that the attacks were carried out by aircraft under the direction of Bashar al-Assad’s regime, and we also have very high confidence that the attacks involved the use of sarin nerve gas,” Tillerson said Thursday night.
In a combative speech at the U.N. Security Council on Wednesday, Haley warned: “When the United Nations consistently fails in its duty to act collectively, there are times in the life of states that we are compelled to take our own action.”
There was no immediate reaction to the missile strike from Russia, which Tillerson and Haley have accused of having turned a blind eye to Syria’s transgressions.
Tillerson said there were no executive-level communications with Russian President Vladimir Putin before the missile strike. But he confirmed that U.S. officials had “multiple conversations” with the Russian government in accord with U.S.-Russian military “deconfliction” agreements.
“We sought no approval from Moscow or at any other level within the Russian infrastructure,” Tillerson said. “This was simply following rules that we have put in place in agreement with the Russian military to deconflict. Because our target in this attack was not Russia.”
Noting the 2013 U.N. arrangement under which Syria agreed to surrender its chemical weapons under the supervision of Russia, Tillerson said Thursday night: “Clearly, Russia has failed in its responsibility to deliver on that commitment from 2013. So either Russia has been complicit or simply incompetent in its ability to deliver on that agreement.”
McMaster said the missile strike wouldn’t have wiped out Assad’s “capacity to commit mass murder with chemical weapons.” But he said: “This was not a small strike. I mean, it was not a small strike. And I think what it does communicate is a big shift in Assad’s calculus — it should be, anyway.”