With Russia unwilling or unable to remove chemical weapons from Syria, the United States is prepared to do more after its widely hailed missile strike against a Syrian air base, said the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations on Friday
World leaders and U.S. lawmakers have rallied around President Donald Trump's surprise decision to launch the stirke, the most significant military action of Trump's young presidency.
However, Russia, one of Syrian President Bashar Assad's most important patrons, condemned the move as an act of "aggression."
But U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley cast the move as "a very measured step" in remarks at the U.N. Security Council, and discussed Russia's "failure" to remove chemical weapons from Syria, something she said the nation was supposed to do.
"The United States took a very measured step last night. We are prepared to do more, but we hope that will not be necessary," Haley said.
As for why there were chemical weapons in the wartorn nation, Haley suggested Russia either knowingly allowed them to remain, was incompetent to remove them, or "it could be that the Assad regime is playing the Russians for fools."
In his own statement, Russia's deputy U.N. ambassador, Vladimir Safronkov, said his country firmly stands by the Syrian government, calling it a force against terrorism and saying it deserves the presumption of innocence in the chemical weapons attack.
He strongly criticized what he called the U.S. "flagrant violation of international law and an act of aggression" whose "consequences for regional and international security could be extremely serious."
Also Friday, senior U.S. military officials said the Pentagon is looking into whether Russia participated in Syria's chemical weapons attack earlier this week.
A drone belonging either to Russia or Syria was seen hovering over the site of the chemical weapons attack Tuesday after it happened, according to the officials, who weren't authorized to speak publicly on the matter and demanded anonymity. The drone returned late in the day as citizens were going to a nearby hospital for treatment. Shortly afterward, officials say the hospital was bombed.
The officials believe the hospital attack may have been an effort to cover up evidence of the attack. They said they are still reviewing evidence.
Trump, who has long warned against the U.S. getting involved in Syria's civil war, is said to have been moved to act by the heartbreaking images of children killed in a chemical weapons attack earlier this week. Even as his advisers insisted that the strikes did not mark a significant shift in U.S. policy, Trump called on other nations to help "end the slaughter and bloodshed in Syria."
The president approved the strike while in Florida for a two-day summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping. Trump did not respond to shouted questions about the assault from reporters as he opened meetings with Xi Friday morning.
The strikes —59 missiles launched from the USS Ross and USS Porter — hit the government-controlled Shayrat air base in central Syria, where U.S. officials say the Syrian military planes that dropped the chemicals had taken off. The U.S. missiles hit at 8:45 p.m. in Washington, 3:45 Friday morning in Syria. The missiles targeted the base's airstrips, hangars, control tower and ammunition areas, officials said.
Saudi Arabia and Turkey, which support the Syrian opposition, welcomed the missile strike, with Riyadh calling it a "courageous decision" by Trump.
British Prime Minister Theresa May's office says the action was "an appropriate response to the barbaric chemical weapons attack launched by the Syrian regime, and is intended to deter further attacks." France, Italy and Israel also welcomed the strikes.
In Washington, Republican leaders applauded Trump's actions, despite the president launching the strike without congressional authorization. Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell called Trump's decision "entirely correct."
"I think the president had the authority to do what he did, and I'm glad he did it," McConnell said.
Democrats were muted in their response. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, R-Calif., said the strikes were "a limited but necessary response" and called on Trump to "develop a comprehensive strategy to end Syria's civil war."
The Syrian military said at least 7 people were killed and several were wounded in the strikes on the air base.
The U.S. assault marked a striking reversal for Trump, who warned as a candidate against the U.S. being pulled into the Syrian civil war that began six years ago.
U.S. officials placed some of the blame on Russia, which has brokered a 2013 agreement with Washington to strip Syria of its chemical weapons stockpiles. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, in Florida with Trump, said Moscow had "failed" to live up to its obligations.
"Either Russia has been complicit or Russia has been simply incompetent in its ability to deliver on its end of the agreement," Tillerson said.
The U.S. Tomahawk missiles, fired from warships in the Mediterranean Sea, targeted an air base in retaliation for the attack that America believes Syrian government aircraft launched with the nerve agent sarin mixed with chlorine gas. The president did not announce the attacks in advance, though he and other national security officials ratcheted up their warnings to the Syrian government throughout the day Thursday.
The strike came as Trump was hosting Xi in meetings focused in part on another pressing U.S. security dilemma: North Korea's nuclear program. Trump's actions in Syria could signal to China that the new president isn't afraid of unilateral military steps, even if key nations like China are standing in the way.
"This clearly indicates the president is willing to take decisive action when called for," Tillerson said.
Trump has advocated greater counterterrorism cooperation with Russia, Assad's most powerful military backer. Just last week, the Trump administration signaled the U.S. was no longer interested in trying to push Assad from power over his direction of a conflict that has killed hundreds of thousands of people and led to the worst refugee crisis since World War II.
U.S. officials portrayed the strikes as an appropriate, measured response and said they did not signal a broader shift in the Trump administration's approach to the Syrian conflict.
"The intent was to deter the regime from doing this again," said Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, the Pentagon spokesman. "It will be the regime's choice if there's any more, and it will be based upon their conduct going forward."
Still, the assault risks plunging America into the middle of Syria's conflict, complicating the safety of the hundreds of U.S. forces fighting a separate campaign against the Islamic State group in the north of the country. If Assad's military persists in further gas attacks, the Trump administration might logically pursue increased retaliation.
Russia and Iran, Assad's allies, pose other problems. Russian military personnel and aircraft are embedded with Syria's, and Iranian troops and paramilitary forces are also on the ground helping Assad fight the array of opposition groups hoping to topple him.
Before the strikes, U.S. military officials said they informed their Russian counterparts of the impending attack. The goal was to avoid any accident involving Russian forces.
Nevertheless, Russia's Deputy U.N. ambassador Vladimir Safronkov warned that any negative consequences from the strikes would be on the "shoulders of those who initiated such a doubtful and tragic enterprise."
The Kremlin said President Vladimir Putin believes that the U.S. strike on a Syrian air base is an "aggression against a sovereign state in violation of international law." Iran's foreign ministry also condemned the strike and called it a violation of international law.
The U.S. also notified its partner countries in the region prior to launching the strikes.
Trump's decision to attack Syria came three-and-a-half years after President Barack Obama threatened Assad with military action after an earlier chemical weapons attack killed hundreds outside Damascus. Obama had declared the use of such weapons a "red line." At the time, several American ships in the Mediterranean were poised to launch missiles, only for Obama to abruptly pull back after key U.S. ally Britain and the U.S. Congress balked at his plan.
He opted instead for the Russian-backed plan that was supposed to remove and eliminate Syria's chemical weapons stockpiles.
The world learned of the chemical attack earlier in the week in footage that showed people dying in the streets and bodies of children stacked in piles. The international outcry fueled an emotional response from Trump, who appeared to abandon his much-touted "America First" vision for a stance of humanitarian intervention, akin to that of previous American leaders.
The show of force in Syria raises legal questions. It's unclear what authority Trump is relying on to attack another government. When Obama intervened in Libya in 2011, he used a U.N. Security Council mandate and NATO's overall leadership of the mission to argue that he had legal authority — arguments many Republicans opposed. Trump can't rely on either justification here.