Sunday 23 September 2018

'We are your men, Bashar' - Syrians gather in capital in defiance after airstrikes

Syrian government supporters wave Syrian, Iranian and Russian flags as they chant slogans against U.S. President Trump during demonstrations following a wave of U.S., British and French military strikes in Damascus, Syria. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)
Syrian government supporters wave Syrian, Iranian and Russian flags as they chant slogans against U.S. President Trump during demonstrations following a wave of U.S., British and French military strikes in Damascus, Syria. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)

Bassem Mroue and Bassam Hatoum, Associated Press

HUNDREDS of Syrians gathered at landmark squares in the Syrian capital on Saturday, honking their car horns, flashing victory signs and waving Syrian flags in scenes of defiance that followed unprecedented joint air strikes by the United States, France and Britain.

A few hours earlier, before sunrise, loud explosions jolted Damascus and the sky turned orange as Syrian air defence units fired surface-to-air missiles in response to three waves of military strikes meant to punish President Bashar Assad for his alleged use of chemical weapons.

Associated Press reporters saw smoke rising from east Damascus and what appeared to be a fire light up the sky.

From a distance, US missiles hitting suburbs of the capital sounded like thunder.

Shortly after the one-hour attack ended, vehicles with loudspeakers roamed the streets of Damascus blaring nationalist songs.

"Good souls will not be humiliated," Syria's presidency tweeted after the air strikes began.

Damascus skies erupt with missile fire as the U.S. launches an attack on Syria targeting different parts of the capital Syria, early Saturday, April 14 (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)
Damascus skies erupt with missile fire as the U.S. launches an attack on Syria targeting different parts of the capital Syria, early Saturday, April 14 (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)

Immediately after the attack, hundreds of residents began gathering in the landmark Omayyad square of the Syrian capital.

Many waved Syrian, Russian and Iranian flags. Some clapped their hands and danced, other drove in convoys, honking their horns in defiance.

"We are your men, Bashar," they shouted.

Syrian state TV broadcast live from the square where a large crowd of civilians mixed with men in uniforms, including an actor, politicians and other figures.

"Good morning steadfastness," one broadcaster said.

US President Donald Trump announced on Friday night that the three allies had launched military strikes to punish Assad for alleged chemical weapons use and to prevent him from doing it again.

Mr Trump said Washington is prepared to "sustain" pressure on Assad until he ends what the president called a criminal pattern of killing his own people with internationally banned chemical weapons.

The Syrian government has repeatedly denied any use of banned weapons.

A fact-finding team of inspectors from the international chemical weapons watchdog was in Damascus and had been expected to head to the town of Douma on Saturday, scene of the suspected chemical weapons attack that killed more than 40 people.

Syrian TV said three civilians were wounded in one of the US-led strikes on a military base in Homs, although the attack was aborted by derailing the incoming missile.

It said another attack with "a number of missiles" targeting a scientific research centre destroyed a building and caused other material damage but no human losses. The network said the building in the research centre included an educational centre and labs.

It said earlier that the attacks targeted a scientific research centre in Barzeh, near Damascus, and an army depot near Homs.

Syrian media reported that air defences had hit 13 incoming rockets south of Damascus.

The attack began at 4am local time (0100 GMT) with missiles hitting the eastern suburbs of Damascus, shaking the ground from a distance.

The sky looked orange over eastern Damascus, apparently as a result of fires caused by the missiles hitting Syria.

Air defence units fired surface-to-air missiles from different directions toward incoming missiles.

Around sunrise, the sound of explosions could be heard just as the loudspeakers from the city's mosques called for morning prayers.

A car with loudspeakers blaring the national song "Oh Syria, You Are My Love" drove through central Damascus amid the attack.

Syrian TV called the attacks a "blatant violation of international law and shows contempt for international legitimacy".

US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis said there were no reports of American losses during the initial air strikes.

"Right now this is a one-time shot," he said, but did not rule out further attacks. He said the air strikes were launched against several sites that helped provide Assad's ability to create chemical weapons.

Britain's Ministry of Defence said that while the effectiveness of the strike is still being analysed, "initial indications are that the precision of the Storm Shadow weapons and meticulous target planning have resulted in a successful attack".

Prime Minister Theresa May described the attack as neither "about intervening in a civil war" nor "about regime change" but a limited and targeted strike that "does not further escalate tensions in the region" and does everything possible to prevent civilian casualties.

"We would have preferred an alternative path. But on this occasion there is none," she said.

The decision to strike, after days of deliberations, marked Mr Trump's second order to attack Syria; he authorised a barrage of Tomahawk cruise missiles to hit a single Syrian airfield in April 2017 in retaliation for Assad's use of sarin gas against civilians.

The US president chastised Syria's two main allies, Russia and Iran, for their roles in supporting "murderous dictators", and noted that Russian President Vladimir Putin had guaranteed a 2013 international agreement for Assad to get rid of all of his chemical weapons. He called on Moscow to change course and join the West in seeking a more responsible regime in Damascus.

Russia's US embassy released a statement warning that the air strikes will "not be left without consequences". It said that "all responsibility" rests with Washington, London and Paris.

The allied operation comes a year after a US missile strike that Mr Trump said was meant to deter Assad from further use of chemical weapons.

Since that did not work, a more intense attack would aim to degrade his ability to carry out further such attacks, and would try to do this by hitting Syrian aircraft, military depots and chemical facilities, among other things.

The one-off missile strike in April 2017 targeted the airfield from which the Syrian aircraft had launched their gas attack. But the damage was limited, and a defiant Assad returned to episodic use of chlorine and perhaps other chemicals.

Friday's strikes appear to signal Mr Trump's willingness to draw the United States more deeply into the Syrian conflict. The participation of British and French forces enables him to assert a wider international commitment against the use of chemical weapons, but the multi-pronged attack carries the risk of Russian retaliation.

In his nationwide address, the president stressed that he has no interest in a lengthy fight with Syria.

"America does not seek an indefinite presence in Syria under no circumstances," he said. "As other nations step up their contributions, we look forward to the day when we can bring our warriors home."

The US has about 2,000 troops on the ground in Syria as advisers to a makeshift group of anti-Islamic State fighters known as the Syrian Democratic Forces. They are in eastern Syria, far from Damascus.

A US-led coalition has been carrying out air strikes in Syria since September 2014 as part of a largely successful effort to break the IS grip on both Syria and Iraq.

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