Nation & World

After Syria attack, tensions rise for United States and Russia, but fears of military confrontation ease for now

A Syrian firefighter is seen inside the destroyed Scientific Research Centre in Damascus, Syria April 14, 2018. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki
A Syrian firefighter is seen inside the destroyed Scientific Research Centre in Damascus, Syria April 14, 2018. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki
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Western leaders warned Syria on Saturday that they could launch further missile strikes if chemical weapons are used again, while the pre-dawn attacks were denounced by Damascus and its backers as illegal actions that would carry repercussions.

But one major worry appeared to ease: That the coordinated attacks by the United States, France and Britain late Friday could have set off a direct confrontation with Syria’s most powerful military partner, Russia.

At the Pentagon, the director of the Joint Staff, Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, said the more than 100 missile strikes delivered a blow to the “heart” of Syria’s chemical weapons network. He acknowledged, however, that Syria retained “residual” capacity, but gave no details on the scope of what could be left.

There was, however, a wider sense of relief that the strikes on three targets — believed to be research and storage cogs in Syria’s chemical weapons production — had not caused Russian casualties, which could have led to a direct confrontation between Washington and Moscow.

McKenzie confirmed there was no Russia response and said Syrian air defenses had “no material effect” on the incoming barrage. Earlier, Russian officials said some missiles were intercepted by the Soviet-made antimissile batteries used by Syrian forces.

The rhetoric from Syria’s backers was harsh.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said the strikes would have “a destructive effect on the entire system of international relations” and called for an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council, which was scheduled to convene at 11 a.m. EDT.

But there were no signs the Russian military was preparing a retaliatory response that could bring Moscow and Washington into direct confrontation.

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Syrian television called the attacks a “flagrant violation” of international law, and Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, derided them as a “military crime.”

But apart from Tehran and Moscow, which support the Syrian government, much of the world saw the U.S.-led strikes as justified and hoped it would prove a deterrent to Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

British Foreign Minister Theresa May called the three-nation attacks a success and were “right and legal” in response to the Syrian government’s suspected use of chemical weapons a week ago in rebel-held Douma, killing dozens of people.

The head of NATO, Jens Stoltenberg, predicted: “This will reduce the regime’s ability to further attack the people of Syria with chemical weapons.”

Washington, Paris and London said they have proof, without identifying it, that chlorine gas caused victims to suffocate.

Inspectors from the international Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons were expected to make their initial foray Saturday to Douma. They will collect soil samples and talk to witnesses in attempts to pin down what occurred.

For the moment, the likelihood of more military action appeared diminished.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis called the overnight attacks a “one time shot.” French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said no more attacks were planned for now but threatened more strikes if the Syrian military used chemical weapons again.

“A perfectly executed strike last night,” tweeted President Donald Trump. “Thank you to France and the United Kingdom for their wisdom and the power of their fine Military. Could not have had a better result. Mission Accomplished!”

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More immediately, the action is likely to stir more heated exchanges at the U.N. Security Council, which met three times last week to discuss Syria. But any action was blocked by the vote powers of Russia, on one side, and the United States, France and Britain on the other.

China, the fifth permanent member, said through its foreign ministry that it opposed the use of force, urged negotiation and called for a “comprehensive, impartial and objective” investigation into the allegation that chemical weapons were used.

The Russian Defense Ministry reported that its forces did not mobilize its air defenses — giving further signals that the attack would not open up a wider crisis between the two former Cold War foes.

The attack involved munitions fired from aircraft and naval vessels, including about 100 Tomahawk cruise missiles, according to a Defense Department official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss operational details. The Pentagon also employed the B-1 strategic bomber.

The assault came despite the lack of a definitive independent finding that chemical weapons were used or who had deployed them. An initial team of inspectors had only arrived in Syria on Friday.

Mattis declined to say whether he thought the attack would prevent Assad from using chemical weapons again.

“Nothing is certain in these kinds of matters. However, we used a little over double the number of weapons this year than we used last year,” he said. “It was done on targets that we believed were selected to hurt the chemical weapons program. We confined it to the chemical weapons-type targets.”

Mattis said that to his knowledge there were no U.S. or allied losses from the strikes Friday.

Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the only communications that took place between the United States and Russia before the operation were “the normal deconfliction of the airspace, the procedures that are in place for all of our operations in Syria.”

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The European Union voiced support for the allies. European Council President Donald Tusk tweeted, “The E.U. will stand with our allies on the side of justice.”

In the wake of last weekend’s gruesome attack, some U.S. officials advocated a larger, and therefore riskier, strike than the limited action Trump ordered in April 2017, also in response to suspected chemical weapons use.

That attack involved 59 Tomahawk missiles fired from two U.S. warships in the Mediterranean Sea. It fulfilled Trump’s vow that chemical weapons are a “red line” that he, unlike his predecessor Barack Obama, would not allow Assad to cross. But the airfield targeted by the Pentagon resumed operations shortly after the attack and, according to Western intelligence assessments, chemical attacks resumed.

Risks of the renewed attack include the possibility of a dangerous escalation with Russia, whose decision to send its military to Syria in 2015 reversed the course of the war in Assad’s favor. Since then, Russia has used Syria as a testing ground for some of its most sophisticated weaponry.

Since last year’s strike, multiple chemical attacks have been reported in opposition areas, most of them involving chlorine rather than the nerve agent sarin, as was used in 2017, suggesting the government may have adjusted its tactics.

Russia’s military had threatened to shoot down any U.S. missiles that put Russian lives at risk. Russia could also fire at the launch platforms used — potentially U.S. planes or ships. Russian officials had said U.S. and Russian military staffs remained in contact regarding Syria, even as Russian media carried stories in recent days about the potential outbreak of “World War III” as a consequence of a U.S. airstrike against Assad.

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The Washington Post’s Louisa Loveluck in Beirut, Anton Troianovski in Moscow, Simon Denyer in Beijing, and Brian Murphy and Paul Sonne in Washington contributed to this report.

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