WASHINGTON — Aircraft and cruise missiles from the United States, France and the United Kingdom struck three targets linked to Syria’s chemical weapons operations Friday night, fulfilling a vow by President Donald Trump to retaliate for a chemical attack against Syrian civilians one week ago.
Defense Secretary James Matthis and Gen. Joe Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Pentagon reporters the three targets were selected from a plethora of options, focusing on facilities that would cause the harshest setback against Syrian chemical weapons capabilities balanced with the least chance of civilian and international casualties.
Mattis said that it was “a one-time shot” but that future attacks were not off the table, depending on the actions of Syrian leader Bashar Assad.
“I believe it has sent a very strong message to dissuade him, to deter him,” Mattis told reporters. “Right now we have no additional attacks planned.”
Syria has denied being responsible for the attack and, along with Russia, has charged the U.S. and others of either staging or fabricating the incident.
There were no reported losses in the attack, even though Syrian defenses erupted with anti-aircraft fire, Dunford and Mattis said.
Pentagon officials said B-1 bombers augmented Tomahawk cruise missiles launched from three U.S. ships. French and British planes fired long-range missiles. One British submarine launched cruise missiles, the officials said.
Targeted were a scientific research center for chemical weapons near Damascus, a weapons warehouse and processing facility for the chemical sarin near Homs and a third unspecified target also near Homs — believed to be a command and control post — Dunford said.
He and Mattis said the destroyed targets would seriously impede Syria’s ability to use chemicals weapons in the near future.
“We confined it to the chemical weapons-type targets,” Mattis told reporters. “We were very precise and proportionate but at the same time, it was a heavy strike.”
The April 7 chemical attack in the Damascus suburb of Douma left at least 42 dead and 500 injured, according to news reports. That suburb was one of the last significant rebel-held areas in Syria.
Thursday morning Mattis told Congress he did not have concrete evidence linking Syria to the chemical attack. Asked about that during the briefing, Mattis said that evidence came Thursday afternoon and that he had no doubts the Assad regime was responsible.
“We are very confident that chlorine was used. We are not ruling our sarin right now,” Mattis told reporters.
One year ago, the U.S. sent 59 sea-launched cruise missiles to strike the Syrian military airfield near Homs in retaliation for a chemical attack that had occurred three days earlier.
Before that attack, the U.S. had alerted Russia to the target in order for Moscow to move any personnel from the area.
This time, Dunfold said the U.S. used its regular “deconfliction line” with the Russians to tell them in advance that U.S. aircraft would be in the region — but did not warn them about the strikes.
The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) was to send in a team Saturday to sift through what possible evidence remains to determine the nature of the attack and, if possible assess blame.