US says air strikes cripple Syria chemical weapons programme

The 105 missiles launched overnight in retaliation for a suspected poison gas attack in Syria targeted three chemical weapons facilities.

A view of Syrian Arab Red Crescent, a humanitarian non-profit organisation, personnel delivering aid in Eastern Ghouta, Syria. Picture: @SYRedCrescent/Twitter.

WASHINGTON/BEIRUT - Air strikes by US, British and French forces crippled Syria’s chemical weapons programme and all missiles launched hit their targets, the Pentagon said on Saturday as President Donald Trump declared “Mission Accomplished.”

The 105 missiles launched overnight in retaliation for a suspected poison gas attack in Syria targeted three chemical weapons facilities, including a research and development in Damascus’ Barzeh district and two facilities near Homs, Pentagon officials said.

“We believe that by hitting Barzeh in particular we’ve attacked the heart of the Syrian chemicals weapon programme,” Lieutenant General Kenneth McKenzie told reporters at the Pentagon.

However, McKenzie acknowledged elements of Syria’s chemical weapons programme remain and he could not guarantee that Syria would be unable to conduct a chemical attack in the future.

Trump called the operation a success in a morning Twitter post and proclaimed: “Mission accomplished.”

The bombing represents a major escalation in the West’s confrontation with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s superpower ally Russia but is unlikely to alter the course of a multi-sided war that has killed at least half a million people in the past seven years.

That raised the question of where Western countries go from here, after a volley of strikes denounced by Damascus and Moscow as at once both reckless and pointless.

Syria released video of the wreckage of a bombed-out research lab, but also of President Bashar al-Assad arriving at work as usual, with the caption “Morning of resilience”.

Ten hours after the missiles hit, smoke was still rising from the remains of five destroyed buildings of the Syrian Scientific Research Center in Barzeh, which a Syrian employee said medical components were researched and developed.

There were no immediate reports of casualties. Damascus’s allies said the buildings hit had been evacuated in advance. Russia had promised to respond to any attack on its ally, and said on Saturday that Syrian air defences had intercepted 71 of the missiles fired.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Saturday that US-led strikes on Syria were “unacceptable and lawless.”

The Pentagon said Syria had fired 40 unguided surface to air missiles - but only after the Western strikes had ended. “We are confident that all of our missiles reached their targets,” McKenzie said.

The United States had “deconfliction” contacts with Russia before, during and after the strikes and there was no indication that Russian systems had been employed.

The Western countries said the strikes were aimed at preventing more Syrian chemical weapons attacks after a suspected poison gas attack in Douma on 7 April killed up to 75 people. They concluded Assad’s government was to blame for gassing the Damascus suburb.

British Prime Minister Theresa May described the strike as “limited and targeted”, with no intention of toppling Assad or intervening more widely in the war.

The French government released a dossier that it said showed Damascus was to blame for the poison gas attack on Douma, the last town holding out in a rebel-held swathe of territory near Damascus that government forces have recaptured this year.