Tuesday, March 19, 2019 | ePaper

Joint air strikes crippled Syria chemical weapons program: Claims US

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The guided-missile cruiser USS Monterey fires a Tomahawk land attack missile on April 14, 2018 as the United States, Britain and France carried out a wave of pre-dawn strikes against Syria's regime.

WASHINGTON (Reuters) :
Western powers said on Saturday their missile attacks struck at the heart of Syria's chemical weapons program, but the restrained assault appeared unlikely to halt Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's progress in the 7-year-old civil war.
The United States, France and Britain launched 105 missiles overnight in retaliation for a suspected poison gas attack in Syria a week ago, targeting what the Pentagon said were three chemical weapons facilities including a research and development in Damascus' Barzeh district and two installations near Homs.
The bombing was the biggest intervention by Western countries against Assad and his superpower ally Russia, but the three countries said the strikes were limited to Syria's chemical weapons capabilities and not aimed at toppling Assad or intervening in the civil war.
The air attack, denounced by Damascus and its allies as an illegal act of aggression, was unlikely to alter the course of a multi-sided war that has killed at least half a million people.
U.S. President Donald Trump called the operation a success.
He proclaimed on Twitter: "Mission accomplished," echoing former President George W. Bush whose use of the same phrase in 2003 to describe the U.S. invasion of Iraq was widely ridiculed as violence there dragged on for years.
"We believe that by hitting Barzeh in particular we've attacked the heart of the Syrian chemicals weapon program," Lieutenant General Kenneth McKenzie said at the Pentagon.
However, McKenzie acknowledged elements of the program remain and he could not guarantee that Syria would be unable to conduct a chemical attack in the future.
U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, said at an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council that Trump told her that if Syria uses poisonous gas again, "The United States is locked and loaded." The Western countries said the strikes were aimed at preventing more Syrian chemical weapons attacks after a suspected poison gas attack in Douma on April 7 killed up to 75 people. They blame Assad's government for the attack.
In Washington, a senior administration official said on Saturday that evidence showed both chlorine and the nerve agent sarin were used in that attack, prompting the strikes.
But speaking at a summit in Peru, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence seemed less sure of the use of sarin, saying that Washington may well determine that it was used along with chlorine.
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, where a Syrian employee said medical components were developed. There were no immediate reports of casualties.
Syria released video of the wreckage of a bombed-out research lab, but also of Assad arriving at work as usual, with the caption "Morning of resilience".
Russian and Iranian military help over the past three years has let Assad crush the rebel threat to topple him.
The United States, Britain and France have all participated in the Syrian conflict for years, arming rebels, bombing Islamic State fighters and deploying troops on the ground to fight that group. But they have refrained from targeting Assad's government, apart from a volley of U.S. missiles last year. Although the Western countries have all said for seven years that Assad must leave power, they held back in the past from striking his government, lacking a wider strategy to defeat him.
Syria and its allies also made clear that they considered the attack a one-off, unlikely to do meaningful harm to Assad. A senior official in a regional alliance that backs Damascus told Reuters the sites that were targeted had been evacuated days ago thanks to a warning from Russia. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the strikes were "unacceptable and lawless."
Syrian state media called them a "flagrant violation of international law," while Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called it a crime and the Western leaders criminals.
Russia had promised to respond to any attack on its ally, but the Pentagon said no Russian air defense systems were used. Syria fired 40 unguided surface to air missiles - but only after the Western strikes had ended, the Pentagon said. "We are confident that all of our missiles reached their targets," McKenzie said. 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.
Washington described the strike targets as a center near Damascus for the research, development, production and testing of chemical and biological weapons, a chemical weapons storage site near the city of Homs, and another site near Homs that stored chemical weapons equipment and housed a command post.
The Pentagon said there had been chemical weapons agents at one of the targets, and that the strikes had significantly crippled Syria's ability to produce such weapons.
French President Emmanuel Macron spoke with Trump and May to discuss results of the strikes. U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres urged all Security Council members to exercise restraint and avoid escalation in Syria, but said allegations of chemical weapons use demand an investigation.
Inspectors from the global chemical weapons watchdog OPCW were due to try to visit Douma on Saturday to inspect the site of the suspected gas attack. Moscow condemned the Western states for refusing to wait for their findings. Russia, whose relations with the West have deteriorated to levels of Cold War-era hostility, has denied any gas attack took place in Douma and even accused Britain of staging it to whip up anti-Russian hysteria.

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