The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations told the Security Council on Saturday that the United States is “locked and loaded,” ready to launch another military strike if the Syrian government ever uses chemical weapons again.
“I spoke to the president this morning, and he said, ‘If the Syrian regime uses this poisonous gas again, the United States is locked and loaded,’” Nikki Haley said at an emergency U.N. Security Council meeting called by Russia after the U.S. and allies struck three targets in Syria.
“When our president draws a red line, our president enforces the red line,” she added, echoing earlier warnings that Western powers could strike again.
Haley’s message came after her Russian counterpart, Vassily Nebenzia, said he would ask the Security Council to condemn the pre-dawn military strikes on Syria by the United States, France and Britain – calling the attacks a violation of international law and the U.N. Charter.
“This is how you want international affairs to be conducted now?” said Nebenzia, according to a translation of his comments in Russian. “This is hooliganism in international relations, and not minor hooliganism, given that we’re talking about major nuclear powers.”
France’s U.N. ambassador, François Delattre, gave a biting response, telling Nebenzia: “That charter was not designed in order to protect criminals.”
Several diplomats at the Security Council warned of the potential danger that the Syrian crisis could spiral out of control and engulf the region and beyond.
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 late Friday 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.
The strikes were seen as a middle ground between a limited and largely symbolic strike – such as last year’s the U.S. missile attack – and a large-scale assault that could either destroy Syria’s chemical weapons or weaken Bashar al-Assad’s grip on power.
By focusing on a narrow set of targets that the allies said are associated with chemical weapons, the military campaign deliberately avoided direct involvement in the seven-year Syrian civil war. It also appeared designed to sidestep Russian forces in Syria.
The strikes also appear to leave Assad firmly in control and with his Russian backing intact. The suburban Damascus area targeted in the suspected chemical attack last Saturday was among a dwindling number of rebel-held areas as Assad expands his control. Russian military assistance since 2015 has allowed Assad to break a stalemate with the rebels, some of whom are backed by the United States.
The Pentagon said a barrage of more than 40 Syrian surface-to-air missiles had “no material effect” on the allied attack, which McKenzie said struck their targets. None of the more sophisticated air defenses that Moscow has positioned in Syria were employed, he said.
A Trump administration official later told reporters that none of the 105 missiles fired were hit by Syria’s Soviet-era antimissile fire – contradicting claims by Russians that Syrian units intercepted incoming missiles.
The official, speaking on condition of anonymity under briefing rules, said it appeared that nearly all the Syrian surface-to-air defenses were fired after the allied missiles hit their targets.
McKenzie described one site, the Barzah Research and Development Center, near Damascus, as a “core” facility for Syria’s chemical weapons program.
“They lost lot of equipment. They lost a lot of material, and that’s going to have a significant effect,” McKenzie told reporters at the Pentagon.
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.”
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 there were no signs the Russian military was preparing a retaliatory response that could bring Moscow and Washington into direct confrontation.
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.
“A perfectly executed strike last night,” tweeted President 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!”
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.
“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,” said Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. “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.”
Gen. Joseph Dunford, 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.”
The European Union voiced support for the allies. European Council President Donald Tusk tweeted, “The EU 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.
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.
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.