Washington – US President Donald Trump on Saturday declared
“Mission Accomplished” for a US-led allied missile attack on Syria’s
chemical weapons programme, but the Pentagon said the pummelling of three
chemical-related facilities left enough others intact to enable the Assad
government to use banned weapons against civilians if it chooses.

“A perfectly executed strike,” Trump tweeted after
US, French and British warplanes and ships launched more than 100 missiles
nearly unopposed by Syrian air defences. “Could not have had a better
result. Mission Accomplished!”

His choice of words recalled a similar claim associated with
President George W Bush following the US-led invasion of Iraq. Bush addressed
sailors aboard a Navy ship in May 2003 alongside a “Mission
Accomplished” banner, just weeks before it became apparent that Iraqis had
organised an insurgency that tied down US forces for years.

The night time Syria assault was carefully limited to minimise
civilian casualties and avoid direct conflict with Syria’s key ally, Russia,
but confusion arose over the extent to which Washington warned Moscow in
advance. The Pentagon said it gave no explicit warning. The US ambassador in
Moscow, John Huntsman, said in a video, “Before we took action, the United
States communicated with” Russia to “reduce the danger of any Russian
or civilian casualties.”

Dana W White, the chief Pentagon spokesperson, said that to
her knowledge no one in the Defence Department communicated with Moscow in
advance, other than the acknowledged use of a military-to-military hotline that
has routinely helped minimise the risk of US-Russian collisions or
confrontations in Syrian airspace. Officials said this did not include giving
Russian advance notice of where or when allied airstrikes would happen.

Russia has military forces, including air defences, in
several areas of Syria to support President Bashar Assad in his long war
against anti-government rebels.

‘Act of aggression’

Russia and Iran called the use of force by the United States
and its allies a “military crime” and “act of aggression.”
The UN Security Council met to debate the strikes, but rejected a Russian
resolution calling for condemnation of the “aggression” by the three
Western allies.

Trump’s UN ambassador, Nikki Haley, told the session that
the president has made it clear that if Assad uses poison gas again, “the
United States is locked and loaded”.

Assad denies he has used chemical weapons, and the Trump
administration has yet to present hard evidence of what it says precipitated
the allied missiles attack: a chlorine gas attack on civilians in Douma on
April 7. The US says it suspects that sarin gas also was used.

“Good souls will not be humiliated,” Assad
tweeted, while hundreds of Syrians gathered in Damascus, the capital, where
they flashed victory signs and waved flags in scenes of defiance after the
early morning barrage.

The strikes “successfully hit every target,” White
told reporters at the Pentagon. The military said there were three targets: the
Barzah chemical weapons research and development site in the Damascus area, a
chemical weapons storage facility near Homs and a chemical weapons
“bunker” a few miles from the second target.

Although officials said the singular target was Assad’s
chemical weapons capability, his air force, including helicopters he allegedly
has used to drop chemical weapons on civilians, were spared. In a US military
action a year ago in response to a sarin gas attack, the Pentagon said missiles
took out nearly 20 percent of the Syrian air force.

As of Saturday, neither Syria nor its Russian or Iranian
allies retaliated, Pentagon officials said.

Western support

The US-led operation won broad Western support. The NATO
alliance gave its full backing; NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said in
Brussels that the attack was about ensuring that chemical weapons cannot be
used with impunity.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel called the attack
“necessary and appropriate”.

In his televised address from the White House on Friday
evening, Trump said the US was prepared to sustain economic, diplomatic and
military pressure on Assad until the Syrian leader ends what Trump called a criminal
pattern of killing his own people with internationally banned chemical weapons.
That did not mean military strikes would continue. In fact, General Joseph
Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said no additional attacks were
planned.

Asked about Trump’s “Mission Accomplished”
assertion, White said it pointed to the successful targeting of three Syrian
chemical weapons sites. What happens next, she said, is up to Assad and to his
Russian and Iranian allies.

Marine Lieutenant General Kenneth F McKenzie, director of
the Joint Staff at the Pentagon, said the allied airstrikes “took out the
heart” of Assad’s chemical weapons arsenal. He said the missiles hit the
“sweet spot,” doing the expected level of damage while minimising the
unintentional release of toxic fumes that could be harmful to nearby civilians.

When pressed, he acknowledged that some unspecified portion
of Assad’s chemical arms infrastructure was not targeted.

“There is still a residual element of the Syrian
program that is out there,” McKenzie said, adding, “I’m not going to
say they’re going to be unable to continue to conduct a chemical attack in the
future. I suspect, however they’ll think long and hard about it.”

Assad’s Barzah research and development centre in Damascus
was destroyed, McKenzie said. “It does not exist anymore.”

A former officer in Syria’s chemical programme, Adulsalam
Abdulrazek, said Saturday the joint US, British, and French strikes hit
“parts of but not the heart” of the program. He said the strikes were
unlikely to curb the government’s ability to produce or launch new attacks.
Speaking from rebel-held northern Syria, Abdulrazek told The Associated Press
there were perhaps 50 warehouses in Syria that stored chemical weapons before
the programme was dismantled in 2013.

Vice President Mike Pence, in Peru for a meeting of regional
leaders, said “there will be a price to pay” involving military force
if Syrian chemical weapons are used again.

Syrian missiles fired after attack was over

Disputing the Russian military’s contention that Syrian air
defence units downed 71 allied missiles, McKenzie said no US or allies missiles
were stopped. He said Syria’s air defences were ineffective and that many of
the more than 40 surface-to-air missiles fired by the Syrians were launched
after the allied attack was over. He said the US knew of no civilians killed by
allied missiles.

McKenzie said 105 US and allied missiles were fired, of
which 66 were Tomahawk cruise missiles launched from aboard three US Navy ships
and one Navy submarine. US, British and French attack aircraft, including two US
Air Force B-1B strategic bombers, launched stealthy, long-range missiles from
outside Syrian airspace, officials said.

A global chemical warfare watchdog group, the Organisation
for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, said its fact-finding mission would go
as planned in Douma.

Russian leader Vladimir Putin reaffirmed the Kremlin’s scepticism
about the allies’ Douma claim, saying Russian military experts had found no
trace of the attack. He criticized the U.S. and its allies for launching the
strike without waiting for international inspectors to complete their visit to
the area.

But British Prime Minister Theresa May said there was little
doubt the Syrian government used a barrel bomb — large containers packed with
fuel, explosives and scraps of metal — to deliver the chemicals at Douma.
“No other group” could have carried out that attack, May said, adding
that the allies’ use of force was “right and legal.”

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