WASHINGTON (JTA) – U.S. warships launched 50-60 missiles at an airbase in northern Syria in retaliation for a chemical weapons attack on civilians in President Donald Trump’s first major intervention in the Middle East.
The Tomahawk missiles hit the Shayrat airfield on Thursday, north of Damascus, CNN reported, citing Pentagon sources. The Bashar Assad regime is believed to have launched the chemical attacks on Iblid province in northern Syria earlier this week that killed at least 72 civilians, including many children.
Trump ordered the attack from his Mar-A-Lago estate in Florida, where he is spending the weekend.
“It is in the vital national security interests of the United States to prevent the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons,” Trump said in a short statement to the media at Mar-A-Lago.
“Years of previous attempts at changing Assad’s behavior have all failed, and failed very dramatically,” Trump said. “As a result, the refugee crisis continues to deepen and the region continues to destabilize, threatening the United States and allies.”
Trump has said he sees the exodus of refugees from Syria as a threat to the West because of terrorists who may be among them. He has twice sought to bar their entry into the United States; both bids were stayed by the courts.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu welcomed the action and said he hoped it sent a message to actors worldwide promoting instability; he named Iran and North Korea.
“In both word and action, President Trump sent a strong and clear message today that the use and spread of chemical weapons will not be tolerated,” Netanyahu said in a statement released by his office Friday morning. “Israel fully supports President Trump’s decision and hopes that this message of resolve in the face of the Assad regime’s horrific actions will resonate not only in Damascus, but in Tehran, Pyongyang and elsewhere.”
Trump had indicated earlier that he was considering action.
“Yesterday, a chemical attack — a chemical attack that was so horrific, in Syria, against innocent people, including women, small children, and even beautiful little babies,” Trump said Wednesday during a media opportunity with King Abdullah of Jordan, a U.S. ally whose nation borders Syria. “Their deaths was an affront to humanity. These heinous actions by the Assad regime cannot be tolerated.”
The Assad regime has denied responsibility and its ally, Russia, has resisted U.N. Security Council action, saying it is premature to blame Assad for the attack. Trump in his short statement to the media on Thursday said there was “no dispute” Assad was behind the attack.
The missile launch represents a sharp departure from the policies of Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, who resisted targeting the Assad regime while maintaining some U.S. involvement in the efforts to push back the Islamic State, the terrorist group that is among Assad’s enemies.
It is also a dramatic departure from how Trump campaigned for president, when he lacerated Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, for deepening U.S. involvement in the Middle East and called for a pullback of U.S. involvement in foreign conflicts.
Just last week, Trump officials suggested that the United States was withdrawing from what was for years a U.S. policy of seeking Assad’s removal from power.
At his Wednesday news conference, Trump said he was flexible in how he approached policy.
“I have that flexibility, and it’s very, very possible — and I will tell you, it’s already happened that my attitude toward Syria and Assad has changed very much,” he said.
CNN reported that Trump informed other countries prior to the attack, although it did not specify whether Israel was among them. Israel is concerned about any escalation north of the Golan Heights, which it controls. That area, in southwest Syria, is not near the targeted base.
The attack could for the first time in Trump’s presidency rattle what had been warming ties with Russia. A Pentagon statement said Russia had been warned of the attack and that U.S. planners “took precautions to minimize risk” to Russian and Syrian personnel.
The Anti-Defamation League’s national director and CEO praised the strikes in a tweet.
“Limited US air strikes on Syrian air base demonstrate that norms against [chemical weapons] cannot be violated with impunity,” wrote Jonathan Greenblatt.