US, allies launch strikes in Syria after gas attack

The scale of the coalition’s missile assault was restricted to avoid triggering a confrontation with Russia or Iran.
Sunday 15/04/2018
Damascus skies erupt with service to air missile fire as the US launches an attack on Syria, on April 14. ( AP)
Damascus skies erupt with service to air missile fire as the US launches an attack on Syria, on April 14. ( AP)

BEIRUT - The United States, Britain and France have carried out limited air strikes against Syria, hitting what were identified as three chemical weapons  facilities in retaliation for an alleged chemical weapons attack April 7 on the besieged town of Douma that killed some 60 civilians.

The scale of the coalition’s coordinated missile assault in the early hours of April 14 local time was clearly restricted to avoid triggering a confrontation with Russia or Iran, Syrian President Bashar Assad’s key allies in the complex Syrian war now in its eighth year, while degrading his chemical weapons capabilities.

The US declared “we have a very high confidence that Syria was responsible” for the attack on Douma, but gave no details. “These are crimes of a monster,” US President Donald Trump said.

Damascus denied it was responsible, and their allies in Russia blamed Britain for staging the attack.

The short, sharp Western operation appeared to be intended as a one-off assault, with no further operations planned unless Assad carried out more gas attacks.

Despite the evident calibration of the air strikes, Russia warned darkly that there would be “consequences” for the air and cruise missile raids from US, British and French destroyers and submarines deployed in the eastern Mediterranean.

It remains to be seen what those might be. But it is widely held that Moscow does not want a direct confrontation with the US and its allies in Syria that could endanger Assad and what is left of his regime.

Details of the air strikes were scant, but they appear to have involved a limited number of aircraft. Britain, for instance, provided four Tornado jets operating from the British air base at Akrotiri on Cyprus across the eastern Mediterranean from Syria.

According to Western sources, more than 100 coalition missiles were fired during the raids, which lasted for 70 minutes.

The targets were a scientific research centre at Barzeh on the outskirts of Damascus where Syria conducts tests for chemical and biological warfare and two chemical weapons storage facilities near the central city of Homs.

The new wave of attacks marked the second time Trump has ordered reprisals against Assad.

In April 2017, the US mounted a limited precision strike against a Syrian air base from where a gas attack had been launched against the town of Khan Sheikhoun, which killed dozens of civilians.

US naval destroyers in the Mediterranean unleashed a broadside of 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at the air base, reportedly destroying more than 20 combat aircraft, or about one-fifth of Assad’s air force strength at that time.

Before the new reprisals were launched, Trump had appeared to be unsure of what punitive action he should take over the attack on Douma, a rebel-held suburb of Damascus, amid fears that any major operation could trigger a significant escalation in the already complex Syrian war, possibly involving Israel as well.

Trump was backed by French President Emmanuel Macron and British Prime Minister Theresa May, who reportedly dispatched British Royal Navy submarines to the eastern Mediterranean to add cruise missile power to the US-led operation.

 Moscow, possibly sensing Trump’s hesitancy over the last week, threatened to retaliate against any US intervention, not just against an expected missile broadside but also wherever they were fired from – an unexpectedly new and potentially dangerous twist in the perplexing Syrian conflict.

Assad has vowed that he would recapture “every inch of Syria” and has shown little compunction in how he will achieve that. Starving out rebel-held pockets under constant bombing and shelling is one of his key tactics.

Using chemical weapons is another.

With the fall of Douma, besieged since 2011, Assad once more has total control of the capital and its environs, a major symbolic victory for the hard-line regime.

An earlier attack using chemical weapons against East Ghouta in 2013 that killed some 1,000 people nearly triggered a US-led intervention of Syria. But then-President Barack Obama settled for a chemical weapons disarmament and inspection deal rather than send in the US military.  The world’s chemical weapons watchdog, the Vienna-based Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, oversaw the handover of 1,300 tons of Assad’s chemical weapons stock under Russian supervision.

But Damascus was widely believed to have retained significant quantities of the internationally banned substances, such as sarin gas, and the means to manufacture it.

After the latest Western raids, Trump warned that the US response to the Assad regime’s chemical weapons arsenal was likely to continue. “We are prepared to sustain this response until the Syrian regime stops its use of prohibited chemical agents,” he said in Washington.