A U.S.-led coalition believes it sent a powerful message to Damascus and its backers, surgically slicing through the country’s air defense systems to cripple the backbone of the Syrian government’s chemical weapons apparatus.
The United States, France and Britain launched the strikes early Saturday morning, firing 105 missiles at three Syrian chemical weapons facilities — one in Damascus and two others near Homs, near the border with northern Lebanon — within minutes.
U.S. military officials said an initial assessment showed every one of the missiles struck its target, reducing the facilities to rubble while avoiding civilian casualties.
“We’ve attacked the heart of the Syrian chemical weapons program,” Lieutenant General Kenneth McKenzie told Pentagon reporters Saturday. “This has dealt them a very serious blow.”
“We believe that it has significantly eroded and crippled the ability of the regime to produce chemicals,” U.S. Vice President Mike Pence told reporters in Lima, Peru. “And to be clear, the U.S. is also ready to take additional action in a sustained way to ensure that Syria understands that there will be a price to pay if they ever use chemical weapons again.”
U.S. President Donald Trump sized up the impact of the strike on Twitter:
The U.S. said all three of the targets — the Barzah Research Center in Damascus and the storage facilities near Homs — were involved in the production and deployment of both chlorine and sarin gas. It said there were no indications any of the chemical agents had been released into the air as a result of the strikes.
“It is clear from those photographs that we’ve seen so far that we’ve been successful,” said a senior administration official. “We’ve seen the facilities, and any equipment that was at those facilities has been eliminated.”
U.S. officials said that as a result, the Syrian chemical weapons program had been set back by years.They also hoped that the ease with which the U.S. and its allies penetrated Syrian air defenses would make Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his key supporters in Russia and Iran think hard before launching another chemical attack.
Of the more than 40 surface-to-air missiles Syria launched in response to the U.S.-led strikes, the vast majority were fired after U.S., British and French cruise missiles had already hit their targets.
Still, U.S. officials admitted Assad might be tempted to launch more strikes with chemical weapons, saying his forces had shown they could not win on the ground without support from Russia and Iran, and the aid of its chemical arsenal.
And while the barrage of cruise missiles reduced three key Syrian facilities to rubble, the regime still has access to more.
“We do assess at the same time that Assad still has remaining aspects of his chemical weapons capabilities,” the senior administration official said. “He has chemicals, sarin and chorine, and has chemical-capable munitions.”
Also, unlike the last time the U.S. launched strikes at Syria for its chemical weapons use, these strikes did not touch Syrian aircraft or airbases.
The Syrian Foreign Ministry on Saturday condemned what it called “the brutal American-British-French aggression … which constitutes a flagrant violation of international law.”
Russia also decried the U.S.-led operation as a failure, saying the majority of the rockets fired at Syria had been intercepted by the Syrian government’s air defense systems.
Syria and Russia also continued to deny chemical weapons had been used in an attack on the town of Douma last Saturday that killed more than 40 people and sickened hundreds more. More recently, Moscow accused Britain of staging the incident.
U.S. defense officials said that they had high confidence chlorine gas was used and that they were still assessing evidence indicating the presence of sarin gas.
But late Saturday, senior administration officials called the evidence “incontrovertible.”
‘Significant’ indication of sarin
“We do have significant information that points to sarin use,” a senior administration official said.
“We’ve got symptoms described in reports of media, NGOs and other open sources,” the official added. “These symptoms don’t come from chlorine. They come from nerve agents.”
Additionally, U.S officials said the Assad government also appeared to have used sarin gas during an attack it launched against civilians in November.
U.S. officials also emphasized that Trump, along with Britain and France, was prepared to take additional, sustained steps to make sure Syria and its allies know there is a high price to pay for violating norms and using chemical weapons.
“He’s prepared to do more if that’s what’s required,” a senior U.S. official said late Saturday.
Yet there were questions about the long-term impact.
“If you’re Assad, you’ve got to say, ‘This is much less than I was expecting,’ ” said Barry Pavel, a member of the National Security Council under Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush.
“They didn’t hit any aircraft units that delivered the chemical weapons. They didn’t hit any intelligence facilities,” said Pavel, now with the Atlantic Council, a global policy research group in Washington.
Some current U.S. officials likewise remained wary, pointing to the backing the Syrian government gets from Moscow.
But even the Russians, despite their vocal opposition to the strikes, may be thinking twice.
“The last thing the Russians want is to provide an excuse for the United States and its NATO allies to get involved there, because their objective is to keep Assad in power,” said Lawrence Korb of the Center for American Progress, a progressive public policy research group in Washington.
U.S. officials said that so far they had not seen any attempts by Syrian government forces or their allies to retaliate, though they have coordinated with U.S. allies in the region as a precaution.
“What happens next has everything to do with what the Assad regime decides to do. It has everything to do as well with what Russia decides to enable,” chief Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White told reporters Saturday.
VOA’s William Gallo and Katherine Gypson contributed to this report.