WHITE HOUSE, PENTAGON —
The U.S. military fired a barrage of missiles into Syria early Friday in retaliation for a chemical weapons attack blamed on President Bashar al-Assad's forces that killed about 100 civilians. It is the first direct U.S. assault on Syrian government forces.
Russia, which is providing troops and air support to the Assad government, condemned the U.S. military action, calling it an “aggression against a sovereign state,” and said it was suspending a memorandum of understanding with the U.S. for flight safety over Syria.
The 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles were launched about 4:40 a.m. local time from the U.S. Navy destroyers USS Ross and USS Porter, which are deployed in the eastern Mediterranean. The missile launch lasted for three to four minutes, U.S. officials said.
U.S. forces are said to have targeted Shayrat Airfield in western Syria. A Navy official told VOA the airfield was targeted because it was most likely used to launch Tuesday's chemical strikes on a rebel-held town.
Sarin nerve gas
“We have a very high level of confidence that the attacks were carried out under aircraft under the direction of Bashar al-Assad’s regime. We have very high confidence that the attacks involved the use of sarin nerve gas,” U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told reporters late Thursday.
Tillerson said it was important to take action against the Syrian leader, because “as Assad has continued to use chemical weapons in these attacks with no response, with no response from the international community, he - in effect - is normalizing the use of chemical weapons, which may then be adopted by others.”
Action needed to be taken, he added “to make clear that these chemical weapons continue to be a violation of international norms.”
National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster said the strikes avoided depots located on the air base where U.S. officials believe sarin is being stored.
"Obviously, the regime will retain a capacity to commit mass murder with chemical weapons beyond this airfield,” McMaster said. But, he added, “This was not a small strike.”
Pentagon spokesman Captain Jeff Davis said the targets included aircraft, structures, petroleum and logistical storage, and ammunition supply bunkers.
“Initial indications are that this strike has severely damaged or destroyed Syrian aircraft and support infrastructure and equipment at Shayrat Airfield, reducing the Syrian Government's ability to deliver chemical weapons,” Davis said in a statement.
Tillerson added, “We feel that the strike itself was proportional because it was targeted at the facility that delivered this most recent chemical weapons attack.”
Watch: President Trump's Statement on US Missile Strikes on Syria
U.S. President Donald Trump addressed the Nation Thursday night.
"On Tuesday Syrian President Bashar al-Assad launched a horrible chemical attack on innocent civilians using a deadly nerve agent. ... Tonight I ordered a targeted military strike on the airfield in Syria from where the chemical attack was launched," Trump said.
"It is in this vital national security interest of the Untied States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons."
Trump called on all civilized nations to join the U.S. "in seeking an end to the slaughter and bloodshed in Syria."
Syrian state TV called the U.S. strike an act of "aggression." While a Turkish-based Syrian opposition group, the Syrian Coalition, welcomed the U.S. attack, saying it puts an end to an age of "impunity" and said the military action should continue.
Early Friday, Russian President Vladimir Putin said the attack was “in violation of international law,” spokesman Dmitry Peskov said in a statement. U.S. officials said they were not in communication with the Russian government before the airstrike.
Russia said it would seek an urgent meeting of the U.N. Security Council to discuss the Syria attack.
Syria ally Iran also condemned the U.S. military action.
Chinese leader’s visit
The airstrike came as Trump entertained Chinese President Xi Jinping at the president's Mar-a-Lago retreat.
Trump did not announce the attacks in advance, although he and other national security officials ratcheted up their warnings to the Syrian government throughout the day Thursday.
"I would tell you that the response from our allies, as well as the region and the Middle East has been overwhelmingly supportive of the action we taken," Tillerson said. He is scheduled to travel to Russia next week.
Leaders from countries allied with the U.S. -- Germany, France, Israel, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, along with several others -- voiced support for the early-morning strike.
Pentagon spokesman Davis said military planners “took precautions” to limit risks to Russian and Syrian personnel at the airfield. Syria’s military, however, said Friday morning that six people had been killed and several others wounded in the attack.
The surprise action marked a striking reversal for Trump, who warned as a candidate against the U.S. getting pulled into the Syrian civil war, now in its seventh year. But the president appeared moved by the video and photos of children killed in that chemical attack, calling it a "disgrace to humanity" that crossed "a lot of lines."
Just last week, the White House backed away from the former Obama administration's stance that Assad must be removed from power.
While Trump did not say whether he now thought, in the wake of the gas attack, Assad should be driven from power, Tillerson said earlier Thursday Assad had to go and that there was "no role for him to govern the Syrian people" in the future.
The six-year civil was had killed hundreds of thousands of people and displaced millions, contributing to the largest refugee crisis since the end of World War Two.
At the United Nations, diplomats met earlier Thursday to discuss three separate draft resolutions responding to the gas attack. One put forward by the U.S., Britain and France, a competing draft put forward by Russia, and a third compromise draft from the 10 nonpermanent members of the Council.
Discussions ran late into the evening Thursday, but no consensus was agreed and Council members departed, many looking tense.
Russia's deputy U.N. Ambassador Vladimir Safronkov said "negative consequences" must be considered if the U.S. were to take unilateral military action.
"All responsibility, if military action occurred, will be on [the] shoulders of those who initiated such [a] doubtful and tragic enterprise," Safronkov said in response to reporters' questions.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem said his country did not use chemical weapons during airstrikes on Khan Sheikhoun. He insisted they would never be used, "even against terrorists."
But Dr. Annie Sparrow, a public health specialist and a critical-care pediatrician at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York who has carried out many studies on Syria, told VOA Turkish service that a "chemical cocktail" was used on the town.
VOA's Jamie Dettmer and Mehmet Sumer contributed to this report.