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Syrian conflict

Trump defends massive missile assault as bombed Syrian air base operates again and ‘sarin attack’ village reports new air strikes

Governor of Syria’s Homs province confirmed the air base targeted in the US cruise missile attack is operating again

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 09 April, 2017, 12:50pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 09 April, 2017, 11:11pm

US President Donald Trump has praised the US military for carrying out the missile attack on a Syrian airfield and struck back at mounting questions over whether it would help achieve a momentum shift in Syria’s bloody civil war.

In a tweet, Trump defended the operation against criticism from some members of US Congress and military analysts that the nighttime volley of 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles two days earlier did not target the runways at the Shayrat air base in eastern Syria. 

Administration officials have said the attack successfully destroyed refuelling stations, hangars and some planes, effectively making the base inoperable.

“The reason you don’t generally hit runways is that they are easy and inexpensive to quickly fix (fill in and top)!” Trump wrote on Twitter from Mar-a-Lago after playing a round at the nearby Trump International Golf Club. The president was spending the weekend here after completing a two-day summit at his winter estate with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Watch: US Navy missiles launched at sea toward Syria

In an earlier message, Trump offered: “Congratulations to our great military men and women for representing the United States, and the world, so well in the Syria attack.”

The White House has sought to cast the mission - which came in response to evidence that Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime had carried out an attack on civilians with the nerve agent sarin - as a major success in putting Assad on notice that he can no longer use such weapons without consequences. Officials announced Saturday that Trump had spoken with King Salman of Saudi Arabia, who offered support for his decision.

But Saturday brought fresh reminders that a single US attack would hardly dissuade Assad from his brutal campaign to crush a six-year rebellion that has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives. Residents in the northwestern town of Khan Sheikhoun, where at least 86 people had been killed in the sarin attack, reported that Syrian warplanes had returned and dropped new conventional bombs.

The governor of Syria’s Homs province confirmed the Syrian air base targeted in the US cruise missile attack is operating again.

The Syrian army said on Friday the attack had caused extensive damage to the base, which the United States says it targeted with 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles.

“The airport is operating as a first phase,” Homs governor Talal Barazi said.

“Planes have taken off from it,” he added, without saying when.

Asked if it was true that Syrian planes were now taking off from Shayrat or that the air base is operating, a Pentagon spokesman referred questions to the Syrian government.

Since a US Navy destroyer launched the missiles early Friday in Syria, the Trump administration has struggled to explain how the attack - which came four years after President Barack Obama chose not to strike Assad unilaterally after a similar use of chemical weapons - fits into its broader policy on Syria and the Middle East.

Trump aides said that they could not unequivocally rule out future strikes against Assad’s forces, but they cautioned that the president’s decision did not signal a broader ramping up of US military engagement on the ground.

In a letter to Congress on Saturday, Trump said his aim was to “degrade the Syrian military’s ability to conduct further chemical weapons attacks and to dissuade the Syrian regime from using or proliferating chemical weapons, thereby promoting the stability of the region and averting a worsening of the region’s current humanitarian catastrophe.”

Senior administration officials have acknowledged that the targeted operation did not eliminate Assad’s ability to carry out chemical attacks. And Trump, who has attempted to enact a ban on Syrians and those in five other majority-Muslim nations from entering the United States, has not indicated that he is willing to accept more Syrians who are fleeing violence.

Meanwhile, the administration is nearing completion of a review of long-term strategy to combat the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, which remains the priority over removing Assad from power. A fully developed proposal is expected to be delivered to Trump’s desk in the near future, a senior administration official said.

Among the questions being considered is what level of military support to give Syrian rebel forces, potential military cooperation with Russia against the Islamic State, how to deal with meddling in the region by Iran and what to do about fighting between Turkish government forces and autonomous Kurdish fighters in northern Syria.

Of the US missile strike on Assad, the senior official said: “We don’t yet know if this is a one-time effort or not. We can’t predict what may or may not happen.”

The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations, added: “Certainly, it’s the hope of the administration that this action will influence [Assad’s] behaviour in a positive direction, and we will not see further chemical attacks.”

Foreign-policy analysts cautioned that ordering a military strike before developing a strategic policy carried significant risks for the White House.

The US assault on the airfield drew sharp condemnation from Assad as well as his patrons in Moscow, where President Vladimir Putin has offered him political backing and military support.

In a sign of the continuing diplomatic fallout from the chemical attack and the US response, British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson announced Saturday that he had cancelled a planned visit to Moscow.

Johnson was to fly to Moscow on Monday to meet his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, in what would have been the first such meeting since 2012. But Johnson said in a statement that “developments in Syria have changed the situation fundamentally.”

“We deplore Russia’s continued defence of the Assad regime even after the chemical weapons attack on innocent civilians,” Johnson said.

Britain has been supportive of the US air strike against a Syrian air base but has said it has no plans to join the United States in any future attacks.

Meanwhile, Russia and Iran, Assad’s most influential supporters, have rallied around him.

Russia condemned the US missile strike and suspended an agreement that would minimise the risk of in-flight incidents between Russian and US military aircraft over Syria.

And on Saturday, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, in a statement carried by state television, called for the formation of an international fact-finding committee that “must not be headed by Americans.”

The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, a global watchdog, said Thursday that it had initiated contact with the Syrian government and was investigating the attack on Khan Sheikhun.

Damascus conversion: President Donald Trump’s tweets reveal his long history of arguing against intervening in Syria

US analysts said that despite his show of force, Trump has offered no broader strategy to achieve a cease fire between the Assad regime and rebel groups to help broker a diplomatic solution.

In recent days, the administration has offered conflicting statements on key questions, including whether Assad can remain in power under any sort of negotiated peace settlement.

“They seem to be celebrating the strike almost as accomplishment in itself rather than as a tool to achieve any particular strategy,” said Jeffrey Prescott, who served as director for Iran, Iraq, Syria and the Gulf States at the National Security Council under Obama from 2015 to 2017. “Even days later, they are basking in the glow, but we do not have a clear sense of why this strike and to what particular end.”

In an interview on CBS News’s Face the Nation set to air Sunday, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the administration’s top priority is defeating the Islamic State.

“Once the ISIS threat has been reduced or eliminated, I think we can turn our attention directly to stabilising the situation in Syria,” he said, using an acronym for the militant group. “We’re hopeful that we can prevent a continuation of the civil war and that we can bring the parties to the table to begin the process of political discussions.”

Tillerson added that he does not expect the Russians to retaliate for what he characterised as a targeted and proportional US attack on Syrian targets.

White House aides said that Trump, who had campaigned generally on a non-interventionist platform, was moved to act after aides on Tuesday delivered a detailed assessment of the chemical attack and the president viewed television images of dead and suffering children.

Over more than two days of intensive deliberations with aides, including at the Pentagon, State Department and National Security Council, Trump authorised the strikes.

But the White House did not ask Congress for permission and it offered no public explanation until after the mission had been completed, when administration officials, including Vice-President Mike Pence and Cabinet officials, placed calls to US lawmakers and foreign capitals, and briefed reporters.

After considering a unilateral strike in 2013, Obama ultimately asked Congress for permission to strike after evidence was found that the Assad regime had crossed Obama’s “red line” against using chemical weapons.

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Obama aides said at the time that the president wanted broad political and public support before acting after years of US military conflicts in the Middle East and Central Asia. But lawmakers voted against the authorisation.

On Capitol Hill, reaction to Trump’s action has been mixed, with Republican leaders endorsing the president’s belief he did not need congressional approval to act.

But some rank-and-file GOP members, along with many Democrats, have criticised Trump for acting impulsively and betraying his own past opposition to US intervention in Syria.

Analysts questioned whether the Trump administration, in its rapid deliberations over less than three days, had fully considered how to deal with the unknown consequences of the missile attack.

“I do not see any grounds for optimism and worry that expectations will be disappointed,” said Tamara Cofman Wittes, a former deputy assistant secretary for Near East affairs at the State Department under Obama.

“I worry that Assad could escalate. One possibility is that Assad could hasten his use of conventional weapons to end the war on his terms.

“In this lightning process,” Wittes said, “the idea that [the White House] worked through the second- and third-order effects - I find that questionable.”

Additional reporting by Reuters