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25th Mar 2019

US claims European support for Syria strike

  • USS Ross, a destroyer in the Mediterranean, firing one of 59 US tomahawk cruise missiles that hit the Syrian base (Photo: Robert S. Price)

The US has said its allies in Europe have endorsed missile strikes against the Syrian regime, but Russia warned of “negative consequences”.

Speaking shortly after US warships in the Mediterranean fired almost 60 cruise missiles at a Syrian air base at around 3AM central European time on Thursday (6 April), Rex Tillerson, the US secretary of state, said: “The response from our allies in Europe as well as in the region in the Middle East has been overwhelmingly supportive”.

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Several EU states, including France, Germany, and the UK, are part of a US-led coalition that had previously bombed the Islamic State (IS), a jihadist group in Syria.

But Tillerson said the US carried out the missile strike alone in response to the Syrian regime’s chemical attack against civilians earlier this week.

“President Trump is willing to act when governments and government actors cross the line. It's clear that president Trump made that statement to the world tonight”, he said.

Trump himself, speaking at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida during a summit with China, asked “all civilised nations to join us in seeking to end the bloodshed” in Syria.

The UK, Australia, Israel, and Saudi Arabia immediately backed his actions.

The UK government called the US strike "an appropriate response to the barbaric chemical weapons attack”.

French foreign minister Jean-Marc Ayrault was less forthcoming, saying the strike was a "warning" and "a kind of condemnation" of Assad's "criminal regime".

Syria has denied responsibility, but in a joint statement later on Friday morning, French president Francois Hollande and German chancellor Angela Merkel also said "Assad bears the only responsibility for this development" and added that the use of gas by the Syrian leader "cannot remain unpunished".

The Syrian air base in Shayrat, in north-east Syria, was being used by Syrian and Russian warplanes.

A Pentagon spokesman, Jeff Davis, said the US had forewarned the Russian military and did not hit those parts of the air base where its planes were situated.

"Russian forces were notified in advance of the strike using the established deconfliction line. US military planners took precautions to minimise risk to Russian or Syrian personnel located at the airfield", he said.

He added that the US strike was a one-off to deter other chemical attacks and did not mean that the US was planning to unseat Assad, who is a key ally in Russia’s efforts to increase its military presence in the Mediterranean.

“It will be the regime's choice if there's any more and it will be based upon their conduct going forward”, Davis said.

Russia relations

Trump, who is accused of having shady ties with Russia, had spoken of a reset in relations with Moscow.

The forewarning to Russia also meant that Syria had the information and was able to move its assets out of the way, making the US strike largely symbolic in nature.

But Tillerson accused Russia of having abetted Assad’s war crime. “Either Russia has been complicit or Russia has been simply incompetent”, he said.

Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, said on Friday that “Washington’s move impairs Russian-US relations, which are in a deplorable state, substantially”.

He said it was “an aggression against a sovereign country violating the norms of international law, and under a trumped-up pretext”.

Vladimir Safronkov, Russia’s acting UN envoy, said the US intervention would have “negative consequences”, just as it did in Iraq and Libya, where US military action helped to topple two dictators but led to instability and to increased flows of refugees to Europe.

US questions

US politicians also weighed the meaning of what Tillerson called Trump’s “statement” to the world.

Some Republican senators said that under the US constitution, Congress should have been consulted because the strikes were an act of war against Syria rather than a counter-terrorist operation against IS.

Chris Coons, a Democratic senator, said it looked like one of Trump’s typical off-the-cuff decisions and could end badly.

“I’m gravely concerned that the United States is engaging further militarily in Syria without a well-thought-out, comprehensive plan”, he said.

Marco Rubio, a Republican senator, said: “What must follow is a real and comprehensive strategy to ensure that Assad is no longer a threat to his people and to US security, and that Russia no longer has free rein to support his regime”.

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