Sunday 25 June 2017

Strikes were 'one step away' from clashing with Russian military

A man carrying a child at a makeshift hospital following a suspected chemical attack on Tuesday in the town of Khan Sheikhoun, northern Idlib province, Syria Photo: Edlib Media Center via AP
A man carrying a child at a makeshift hospital following a suspected chemical attack on Tuesday in the town of Khan Sheikhoun, northern Idlib province, Syria Photo: Edlib Media Center via AP

Steve Holland, Andrew Osborn and Tom Perry

US cruise missile strikes on a Syrian air base were one step away from clashing with the Russian military, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said yesterday, underscoring the risks in US President Donald Trump's first major foray into the Syrian civil war.

US officials informed Russian forces ahead of the strikes, which were intended to punish the Syrian government for what they said was a chemical weapons attack, and avoided hitting Russian personnel.

A satellite image released by The Pentagon shows the damage assessment at Shayrat Airfield Photo: DigitalGlobe/U.S. Department of Defense via AP
A satellite image released by The Pentagon shows the damage assessment at Shayrat Airfield Photo: DigitalGlobe/U.S. Department of Defense via AP

In the biggest foreign policy decision of his presidency, Mr Trump ordered a step his predecessor Barack Obama never took: targeting the Syrian military. Washington says Syrian government forces carried out a poison gas attack in northern Syria this week that killed at least 70 people.

The US action catapulted Washington into confrontation with Russia, which has military advisers on the ground aiding its ally, President Bashar al-Assad.

Satellite imagery suggests the Shayrat air base that was struck by dozens of US missiles is home to Russian special forces and military helicopters, part of the Kremlin's effort to help the Syrian government fight Isil and other militant groups.

Mr Medvedev, on social media, said the strikes were illegal and had been "one step away from military clashes with Russia".

Syrian President Bashar Assad Photo: SANA via AP
Syrian President Bashar Assad Photo: SANA via AP

Mr Trump has frequently called for improved relations with Russia which were strained under Mr Obama, but the US president said action had to be taken against Mr Assad.

"Years of previous attempts at changing Mr Assad's behaviour have all failed and failed very dramatically," Mr Trump said as he announced the attack from his Florida resort, Mar-a-Lago, where he was meeting Chinese President Xi Jinping.

"Even beautiful babies were cruelly murdered in this very barbaric attack," he said, adding: "No child of God should ever suffer such horror."

Mr Assad's office said Damascus would respond by striking its enemies harder.

The United Nations Security Council was to meet yesterday to discuss the US cruise missile strikes, diplomats said. The meeting of the 15-member council was to be in public.

US officials said the strike was a "one-off" intended to deter future chemical weapons attacks, and not an expansion of the US role in the Syria war.

Tomahawk missiles fired from the USS Porter and USS Ross struck the airstrip, aircraft and fuel stations on the air base, which the Pentagon says was used to store chemical weapons.

The swift action is likely to be interpreted as a signal to Russia, as well as to countries such as North Korea, China and Iran where Mr Trump has faced foreign policy tests early in his presidency, that he is willing to use force.

The strikes could cheer Mr Assad's enemies, after months when Western powers appeared to grow increasingly resigned to his staying in power. But opposition figures said an isolated assault was far from the decisive intervention they have long sought.

The Syrian government and Moscow have denied that Syrian forces were behind the gas attack, but Western countries have dismissed their explanation that chemicals leaked from a rebel weapons depot after an air strike as not credible.

The Syrian army said the US attack killed six people and called it "blatant aggression" which made the US a partner of "terrorist groups" including Isil. There was no independent confirmation of civilian casualties.

"President Putin views the US strikes on Syria as aggression against a sovereign state in violation of the norms of international law and on a made-up up pretext," said a Kremlin statement. "This step by Washington will inflict major damage on US-Russia ties."

Moscow suspended communication with US forces designed to stop planes colliding over Syria.

A Russian frigate carrying cruise missiles sailed through the Bosphorus Strait into the Mediterranean Sea, although there was no indication it was directly in response to US action.

Several Western allies of the US described the strikes as a proportionate response to Mr Assad's suspected use of poison gas.

Iran, Mr Assad's other main ally, denounced it.

Washington has long backed rebels fighting against Mr Assad in a multi-sided civil war that has killed more than 400,000 people and driven half of Syrians from their homes since 2011.

The US has been conducting air strikes against Isil militants who control territory in eastern and northern Syria, and a small number of US troops are on the ground assisting anti-Isil militias.

Russia joined the war on Mr Assad's behalf in 2015, action that decisively turned the momentum of the conflict in the Syrian government's favour. Although they support opposing sides in the war between Mr Assad and rebels, Washington and Moscow both say they share a single main enemy, Isil.

Tuesday's attack was the first time since 2013 that Syria was accused of using sarin, a banned nerve agent it was meant to have given up under a Russian-brokered, UN-enforced deal that persuaded Mr Obama to call off air strikes four years ago.

Video depicted limp bodies and children choking while rescuers tried to wash off the poison gas. Russian state television blamed rebels and did not show footage of victims.

Irish Independent

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