DAMASCUS: The United States, Britain and France carried out a wave of strikes against Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime on Saturday in response to alleged chemical weapons attacks that President Donald Trump branded the “crimes of a monster.”
As Trump embarked on a White House address to announce the action—taken in defiance of Russian warnings—explosions were heard in the Syrian capital Damascus, signalling a new chapter in a brutal seven-year-old civil war.
An AFP correspondent in the city heard consecutive blasts at 4:00 am (0100 GMT), followed by the sound of airplanes overhead. Smoke could be seen rising from the northern and eastern edges of the capital.
After dawn, Syrians draped in government flags descended on the heart of the capital in a show of defiance against the strikes.
Trump said he had ordered US forces to launch precision strikes “on targets associated with the chemical weapons capabilities of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.”
He said a combined operation had been launched with the forces of Britain and France, whose leaders have rallied behind Trump’s call for a response to an alleged chemical attack on the town of Douma a week ago that rescuers and monitors say killed more than 40 people.
“This massacre was a significant escalation in a pattern of chemical weapons use by that very terrible regime,” Trump said.“The evil and the despicable attack left mothers and fathers, infants and children thrashing in pain and gasping for air. These are not the actions of a man. They are crimes of a monster instead.”
Joseph Dunford, Washington’s top general, said the strikes hit targets near Damascus and in Homs province including a scientific research centre, storage facilities and a command post.
Syrian surface-to-air missile batteries had attempted to fire back, but there were no initial reports of losses, he added.
Syrian state media said air defences were activated to block the attack and published images of smoke clouds hanging over the capital. At the rally in central Damascus, 48-year-old Nedher Hammoud claimed to have seen US missiles “being shot down like flies”.
“Let them do what they want, kill who they want... History will record that Syria shot down missiles—and not just missiles. It shot down American arrogance.”
Syria’s foreign ministry denounced the strikes as a “brutal, barbaric aggression” and suggested they were aimed at “hindering” the work of inspectors from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons due to start in Damascus later on Saturday.
The strikes were a marked escalation compared with a US strike following a chemical attack a year ago, when only cruise missiles were used against a single airfield.
Defence Secretary Jim Mattis said no additional strikes were planned. “Right now this is a one-time shot,” he said.
Dunford said Russia’s forces in Syria had been warned through existing “deconfliction” channels that Western planes would be in Syrian air space, but Washington had not revealed the target sites or timing in advance.
Trump also warned Russia and Iran not to stand by their ally in Damascus.
“Russia must decide if it will continue down this dark path or if it will join with civilised nations as a force for stability and peace,” he argued.