Late Thursday evening, President Donald Trump ordered the US military to fire dozens of Tomahawk missiles against a Syrian regime airbase. The strike was in response to a chemical gas attack carried out on Tuesday by President Bashar al-Assad against his own people, which killed at least 85, including about two dozen children. The strike marks the first direct US attack against the Assad regime since the Syrian civil war began in 2011.
Here’s what we know and what we don’t know about the strike so far. The story is developing, and we will continue to update this post as we get more information.
What we know
- The US launched 59 Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles from the destroyers USS Porter and USS Ross in the eastern Mediterranean Sea. The missiles targeted “aircraft, hardened aircraft shelters, petroleum and logistical storage, ammunition supply bunkers, air defense systems, and radars” located at the al-Shayrat airbase in Syria, according to an official statement from the Pentagon.
- The strike was in response to a suspected chemical weapons attack by the Assad regime on civilians in the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhoun on Tuesday. On Thursday, the Turkish Health Ministry said the chemical was the banned nerve agent sarin. The Pentagon said in its statement that the strike was a “proportional response to Assad's heinous act.”
- The Syrian state news agency Sana claims that nine civilians, including four children, were killed by the strike. These numbers have not been verified by an independent source.
- According to Trump, the targeted airbase is the location the US intelligence community believes was used to launch Tuesday’s chemical attack.
- In a statement from his Mar-a-Lago estate, Trump defined the purpose of the strike somewhat narrowly: “Tonight, I ordered a targeted military strike on the airfield in Syria from where the chemical attack was launched. It is in the vital national security interest of the United States to prevent and deter the spread of chemical weapons.”
- The Pentagon’s initial assessment was that the strike severely damaged or destroyed Syrian aircraft and support infrastructure and equipment at the airfield. However, on Friday afternoon, the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that Syrian warplanes had taken off from that same airfield and launched airstrikes on countryside near Homs in Syria.
- The Pentagon informed Russia, the other big player in the Syrian war, of the strike in advance using its established “deconfliction channel” in an attempt to minimize Russian casualties.
- Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday denounced the US strike as "aggression against a sovereign state in violation of the norms of international law." Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told reporters that Putin believes the attack was done under a "trumped-up pretext," according to Russian state-run news agency Sputnik.
- Moscow also announced that it would be strengthen Syria’s air defense systems as well as sending a warship to the eastern Mediterranean Sea near the area from which the two US destroyers launched the cruise missiles.
- Russia also said it was suspending an agreement that allows the US and Russia to coordinate their air operations in Syria so as to prevent accidental midair collisions between their aircraft.
- Top US lawmakers from both parties have signaled varying degrees of support for the strike. Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan deemed the strike “appropriate and just,” and Democratic Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer called it “the right thing to do,” while calling for Trump to consult Congress about his strategy.