While Syria and Russia have insisted they had no hand in an alleged chemical attack in the Damascus suburb of Douma, the US, UK and France said they were convinced they had, something that led them to hit three Syrian targets overnight associated with the weapons’ production and storage.
The US defence secretary said the strikes, that involved the firing of 105 cruise missiles from planes and ships, were for the time being a “a one-time shot”.
Yet at an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council, hours after the hour-long strikes had concluded, the US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, said Washington was ready to attack again if there was further use of chemical weapons.
Ms Haley said she had spoken earlier in the day with Mr Trump.
“We are confident that we have crippled Syria’s chemical weapons programme. We are prepared to sustain this pressure, if the Syrian regime is foolish enough to test our will,” she said.
“If the Syrian regime uses this poisonous gas again, the United States is locked and loaded.”
Russia responded by demanding a UN resolution that would condemn “the aggression” against Syria by the United States and its allies. The short draft resolution called the action a violation of international law and the UN charter.
Russia’s UN ambassador Vassily Nebenzia told the council the US and its allies struck without waiting for an investigation by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, calling the attack “hooliganism”.
“This was blatant disregard for international law,” he said.
The 105 missiles launched overnight in retaliation for a suspected poison gas attack in Syria targeted three chemical weapons facilities, including research and development buildings in Damascus’ Barzeh district and two facilities near Homs, Pentagon officials said.
“We believe that by hitting Barzeh in particular we’ve attacked the heart of the Syrian chemicals weapon programme,” Lt Gen Kenneth McKenzie told reporters.
However, Mr McKenzie acknowledged elements of Syria’s chemical weapons programme remained in place and he could not guarantee that Syria would be unable to conduct a chemical attack in the future. Mr Trump called the operation a success in a morning Twitter post and proclaimed: “Mission accomplished”, a phrase that called to mind a claim made by George W Bush in the early stages of the US and UK invasion of Iraq that proved to be badly wrong.
On Saturday, Syria released a video of the wreckage of a bombed-out research lab, but also of Mr Assad arriving at work as usual, with the caption “Morning of resilience”.
Ten hours after the missiles hit, smoke was still rising from the remains of five destroyed buildings of the Syrian Scientific Research Centre in Barzeh, in which a Syrian employee said medical components were researched and developed, Reuters said.
There were no immediate reports of casualties. Damascus’s allies said the buildings hit had been evacuated in advance. Russia had promised to respond to any attack on its ally, and said on Saturday that Syrian air defences had intercepted 71 of the missiles fired.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Saturday that US-led strikes on Syria were “unacceptable and lawless”.