THE United States, Britain and France fired more than 100 cruise missiles at Syria, particularly 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.”
The Russian defense ministry said a “significant number” of these were intercepted by Syrian air defenses.
“Russian air defense systems on Syrian territory have not been used to counter the missile strikes,” the ministry said.
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.
In Damascus, Syria’s government denounced Western strikes on its military installations as a “brutal, barbaric aggression” that violated international law.
“The Syrian Arab Republic condemns in the strongest terms the brutal American-British-French aggression against Syria, which constitutes a flagrant violation of international law,” the foreign ministry said.
The joint operation came one week after a suspected chemical attack on an opposition-controlled town outside Damascus left more than 40 people dead.
Western powers blamed President Bashar al-Assad, but Syria and its ally Russia categorically denied the claims and accused the West of “fabricating” the incident to justify military action.
The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons was set to begin its investigation inside the Eastern Ghouta town of Douma on Saturday, just hours after the strikes.
Syria’s foreign ministry said the strikes aimed to block their work.
An AFP correspondent in the city heard consecutive blasts at 4 a.m. (9 a.m. in Manila), 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 center, 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 defenses 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 Organization 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.
Defense 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 civilized nations as a force for stability and peace,” he argued.
Russia’s defense ministry said more than 100 cruise missiles and air-to-land missiles had been fired and that “a significant number” were shot down.
It said that none of the Western strikes in Syria had hit areas covered by Russia’s air defenses around its Hmeimim air base and naval facility in Tartus.
The strikes had been expected since harrowing footage surfaced of the aftermath of the attack in Douma, which prompted a furious reaction from Trump.
Trump’s anger was shared by France’s President Emmanuel Macron, who signed his country up for a joint response.
“We cannot tolerate the normalization of the use of chemical weapons,” Macron said in a statement.
Defense Minister Florence Parly said France fired cruise missiles from frigates in the Mediterranean and deployed fighter jets from home bases as part of its strikes.
Britain’s defense ministry said that four British Tornado jets had fired Storm Shadow missiles at a base 25 kilometers west of Homs city.
“We cannot allow the use of chemical weapons to become normalized—within Syria, on the streets of the UK, or anywhere else in our world,” Prime Minister Theresa May said, referring to a recent assassination attempt on a Russian double agent.
In the days between the attack in Douma and the US-led response, Washington and Moscow clashed repeatedly in duelling statements and debates.
UN chief urges restraint
Moscow denied Assad had any role in the alleged attack, pushing a variety of alternative theories that peaked with a claim that Britain staged the event.
At the United Nations, Russia’s diplomats vetoed a US motion to reestablish an international investigation into chemical weapons use in Syria that could have established blame.
Washington, Paris and London have nevertheless insisted that their own secret intelligence points to Assad’s guilt, and on Friday, a US spokeswoman said they had “proof.”
The Western leaders apparently found this a convincing enough reason to launch a punitive strike, but other observers are concerned the crisis could escalate.
The Russian military had vowed to respond to any attack, and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s administration had repeatedly warned that Trump was taking America down a dangerous path.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on Saturday called for calm, delaying a planned trip to Saudi Arabia to deal with the aftermath of the military action.
“I urge all member states to show restraint in these dangerous circumstances and to avoid any acts that could escalate the situation and worsen the suffering of the Syrian people,” he said in a statement.
Iran also warned of the potential impact of the strikes on the volatile Middle East.
“The United States and its allies have no proof and, without even waiting for the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons to take a position, have carried out this military attack,” the foreign ministry said.
They “are responsible for the regional consequences of this adventurist action.”
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