Hours after U.S. President Donald Trump fired dozens of cruise missiles to strike at his regime, Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad on Friday re-attacked the same rebel-held town where hundreds of civilians were killed and injured by a chemical attack this week.
Assad’s forces carried out three airstrikes against targets in eight Syria towns on Friday — including Khan Sheikhoun, which was bombed with chemical munitions on Tuesday. The strikes used smaller conventional rockets and did not result in any injuries or substantial damage, since most residents had already fled the town.
Assad’s military response may signal a determination to resist rebel forces, regardless of U.S. intervention. The dictator’s regime and Russia, his largest ally, each condemned Trump’s decision late Thursday to launch the first known American attack against the government in Damascus.
United Nations Secretary General António Guterres on Friday called for restraint from all parties involved to avoid further escalating the conflict.
“I continue to follow the situation in Syria closely and with grave concern,” Guterres said in a statement. “I have long stated that there needs to be accountability for such crimes.”
“Mindful of the risk of escalation, I appeal for restraint to avoid any acts that could deepen the suffering of the Syrian people,” he continued. “These events underscore my belief that there is no other way to solve the conflict than through a political solution. I call on the parties to urgently renew their commitment to making progress in the Geneva talks.”
At an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council Friday, U.S. ambassador Nikki Haley warned that the United States military is prepared to strike again if Assad — or Russia — fails to rein in attacks on civilians.
“We are prepared to do more but we hope that will not be necessary,” she said. “It is in our vital national security interest to prevent the spread and use of chemical weapons.
“The world is waiting for the Russian government to act responsibly in Syria. … Any country that chooses to defend the atrocities of the Syrian regime will have to do so in full view of the public, for all the world to hear.”
The American ambassador also identified the Iranian government, another key Syrian ally, as an active belligerent in the fight — saying approval by Moscow and Tehran of Assad’s actions “will only lead to more murders.”
Friday’s meeting happened in open session after Haley rejected a request made on Russia’s behalf by Bolivia to hold the meeting behind closed doors.
Fifty-nine Tomahawk cruise missiles were fired from U.S. warships in the east Mediterranean Sea late Thursday into the al-Shayrat airfield in west Syria, where American officials believe Tuesday’s chemical attack originated. The strike destroyed vital support equipment, including aircraft, and killed at least six people, according to the U.S. Department of Defense.
Syria’s military said Friday the attack made the United States a “partner” of terror organizations, like the Islamic State and al-Qaida — and threatened consequences for “those who would take such a tragic and unfounded action.”
Moscow also condemned the act and said the Kremlin will now abandon a U.S.-Russia cooperative logistical agreement intended to minimize potential risks for each nation’s military jets, which routinely fly in the region.
“The U.S. opted for a show of force, for military action against a country fighting international terrorism without taking the trouble to get the facts straight,” Russia’s foreign ministry added in a statement. “It is not the first time that the U.S. chooses an irresponsible approach that aggravates problems the world is facing.
“Any expert understands that Washington’s decision on airstrikes predates the [chemical attack].”
Russia accused the U.S. of bombing the airfield to divert attention from Iraq, where a March airstrike by the U.S.-led international coalition killed about 150 civilians in Mosul.
Russian President Vladimir Putin called the U.S. strikes a violation of international law.
“The Syrian army has no chemical weapons,” the Kremlin’s press service said in a statement Friday. “Vladimir Putin regards the U.S. strikes on Syria as an attempt to draw public attention away from the numerous civilian casualties in Iraq.”
U.S. officials said Friday, though, that it’s possible Assad’s forces have a stockpile of chemical munitions that were kept hidden from weapons inspectors — and that the regime could also have the capability to produce more.
“We have never taken the Assad regime at its word that it declared its entire chemical weapons stockpile,” a U.S. intelligence official told NBC News Friday. “Assad has repeatedly shown that he is willing to use whatever chemical weapons he has retained or reconstituted to attack and terrorize he own people.”
Several American allies support Trump’s dramatic military response and say Assad has only himself to blame for U.S. retaliation — one, for Tuesday’s chemical attack, and two, for a long history of presiding over other human rights abuses in Syria. The country has been engaged in civil war since 2011 between rebels and Assad’s government, a period that has seen more than a half-million people killed.
Officials so far estimate that more than 70 people were killed in Tuesday’s chemical assault and 400 others were injured. Video footage and photographs of the aftermath showed civilians, including very young children, suffering from what U.S. officials say was sarin gas dropped from Syrian warplanes.
Assad is simultaneously fighting the spread of the Islamic State terror group in his country. Moscow has been a critical ally in both fights, providing air cover for Syrian forces on the ground.
“For too long, international law has been ignored in the Syrian conflict, and it is our shared duty to uphold international standards of humanity,” Guterres said. “This is a prerequisite to ending the unrelenting suffering of the people of Syria.”