By Zeina Karam and Sarah El Deeb / Associated Press
BEIRUT — World leaders rallied around the United States after it launched a missile strike early Friday on a Syrian air base in response to this week’s chemical attack, while Russia condemned the move as “aggression” and suspended crucial coordination with Washington in Syria’s congested skies.
The overnight missile attack, which marked the first time the U.S. has directly targeted Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces, was condemned by his allies in Russia and Iran but welcomed by the Syrian opposition and its supporters, who expressed hope it signaled a turning point in the devastating six-year-old civil war.
The bombing represents Trump’s most dramatic military order since taking office and thrusts the U.S. administration deeper into the complex Syrian conflict. The Obama administration threatened to attack Assad’s forces after previous chemical attacks, but never followed through.
About 60 U.S. Tomahawk missiles hit the Shayrat air base, a small installation with two runways, where aircraft often take off to bomb targets in northern and central Syria. The U.S. missiles hit at 3:45 a.m. (0045 GMT) Friday and targeted the base’s airstrips, hangars, control tower and ammunition areas, U.S. officials said.
They were fired from two warships in the Mediterranean Sea, in retaliation for Tuesday’s deadly chemical attack, which officials said used chlorine mixed with a nerve agent, possibly sarin.
Assad’s office called the U.S. missile strike “reckless” and “irresponsible.” The Syrian military said at least seven people were killed and nine wounded. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition monitor said the seven included a general and three soldiers.
The Kremlin said President Vladimir Putin believes the U.S. strike is an “aggression against a sovereign state in violation of international law.”
Spokesman Dmitry Peskov said “Washington’s move deals a significant blow to the Russia-U.S. relations, which are already in a deplorable shape,” and poses a “serious obstacle” for creating an international coalition against terrorism.
Russia said it is suspending a memorandum with Washington — signed after Russia began an air campaign in support of Assad in September 2015 — under which the two exchange information about their sorties over Syria.
The Kremlin said just 23 of 59 missiles reached the air base, destroying six Syrian jets but leaving the runway intact.
A U.S. official said all but one of the 59 missiles struck their targets, hitting multiple aircraft and air shelters, and destroying the fuel area. The official, who was not authorized to discuss initial reports, spoke on condition of anonymity.
A U.S.-led coalition has been bombing Islamic State targets in Syria since 2014, while Russia’s air force has been striking both extremist groups and Syrian rebels in order to aid Assad’s forces.
Saudi Arabia and Turkey, which support the Syrian opposition, welcomed the missile strike, with Riyadh calling it a “courageous decision” by Trump. Iran called it a “dangerous” move that would “strengthen terrorists” and exacerbate the conflict.
Hezbollah, an Iran-backed Lebanese group that has sent thousands of fighters to Syria to bolster Assad, said the “foolish” strike would lead to a “dangerous escalation in the region.”
The British government said it was informed in advance about the strike and firmly supports the American action.
Prime Minister Theresa May’s office says the action was “an appropriate response to the barbaric chemical weapons attack launched by the Syrian regime, and is intended to deter further attacks.” France, Italy and Israel also welcomed the strikes.
The opposition Syrian Coalition said the U.S. attack puts an end to an age of “impunity” and should herald the start of a larger campaign against Damascus.
Maj. Jamil al-Saleh, a U.S-backed rebel commander based in the area where the U.S. attack took place, told The Associated Press he hoped the strike would be a “turning point” in the six-year-old war, which has killed an estimated 400,000 people.
Assad had been under mounting international pressure after the chemical attack on the northern town of Khan Sheikhoun, which killed 87 people, including 31 children. Even Russia has said its support is not unconditional.
Syria denied using chemical weapons. Russia has said the toxic agents were released when a Syrian airstrike hit a rebel chemical weapons arsenal, and that blame should not be apportioned until a full investigation has been completed.
Russia’s military intervention in Syria has turned the balance of power in Assad’s favor, and Moscow has used its veto power at the Security Council on several occasions to prevent sanctions against Damascus.
The U.S. had initially focused on diplomatic efforts, pressing the U.N. Security Council to adopt a resolution to condemn Syria’s suspected use of chemical weapons. But the vote was canceled because of differences among the 15 members.
The Security Council plans to meet at 11:30 a.m. (1530 GMT) for a briefing on the U.S. strike.
In Geneva, the U.N. envoy for Syria told the AP his office is in “crisis” mode after the strike, and that he would soon convene an urgent meeting of a Syrian cease-fire task force chaired by the United States and Russia. Staffan de Mistura said Russia requested the meeting, which was “agreed upon” by the United States.
The envoy has been spearheading peace-making efforts for nearly three years, with little progress.
Trump had said the chemical attack crossed “many, many lines,” and put the blame squarely on Assad’s forces. Speaking Thursday on Air Force One, Trump said the attack “shouldn’t have happened, and it shouldn’t be allowed to happen.”
A survivor of the chemical attack said he hopes the U.S. missile attack puts an end to government airstrikes, creating a safe area for civilians.
Alaa Alyousef, who lost 25 relatives in the chemical attack, said the U.S. missile strike “alleviates a small part of our suffering,” but he worries it will be an “anesthetic” that merely numbs the pain while allowing the international community to save face.
Associated Press writers Albert Aji in Damascus, Jon Gambrell in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow, Lolita C. Baldor in Washington and Jamey Keaten in Geneva contributed to this report.