Trump authorized the attack, the most significant of his young presidency, after he was briefed by Secretary of Defense James Mattis in Palm Beach, Fla., where the president is hosting visiting Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Two Navy destroyers patrolling in the eastern Mediterranean Sea fired up to 60 Tomahawk cruise missiles from hundreds of miles offshore, well out of range of Syrian air defenses, officials said.
The Porter, a destroyer that launched Tomahawk missiles during the opening stage of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, is in the region, along with the guided missile destroyer Ross.
The target was a military airfield, Shayrat, northeast of Damascus, that U.S. officials said was used to launch the lethal gas attack in Idlib Province on Tuesday. The field has two runways and a series of hardened shelters.
Targets included aircraft, fuel and weapons depots, and command and control facilities, officials said. Pentagon officials said they were assessing the results of the strikes, adding that there are no plans for additional strikes on Thursday.
It wasn’t immediately clear if further attacks are planned or if the attack would be limited to a single airbase and whether that would serve to degrade Syrian military capabilities or its ability to deliver chemical weapons.
The attack marks the first time the U.S. has deliberately targeted Assad’s military in Syria’s multi-sided civil war, now in its 7th year. Until now, the U.S. has focused only on targeting Islamic State militants.
The Joint Chiefs of Staff met Thursday afternoon to consider the crisis and top congressional officials were briefed on the plans. The White House national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, was in Palm Beach with Trump.
Complicating the calculus of any attack is the presence of Russian and Iranian troops that are mixed in — and fighting alongside — Syrian forces in much of the country.
The Pentagon also can use stealth aircraft to slip past Syrian advanced radar and defense systems, although as one U.S. defense official noted, “The use of manned aircraft would obviously increase the risk” to U.S. personnel.
The fast-moving developments marked an abrupt reversal for the Trump administration, which days earlier had expressed indifference regarding the future of Assad.
Trump had lambasted President Barack Obama’s inability to resolve the Syrian conflict, now in its 7th year, but had also signaled his own unwillingness to deeply involve the United States in another Mideast war.
But Trump etched his own “red line” against atrocities in Syria on Wednesday, after saying horrific images from the deadly gas attack had changed his view of Assad, who is battling an array of rebel groups in the country’s multi-sided civil war.
“That crosses many, many lines,” Trump said Wednesday. “Beyond a red line — many, many lines.”
Pentagon officials updated their Syria plans after an emergency meeting of the National Security Council late Wednesday, one day after U.S radar and surveillance systems detected a fixed-wing Syrian aircraft drop bombs near a hospital in the rebel-held area around Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib province, officials said.
Soon after the attack, photos and videos emerged on social media that showed lifeless bodies of children, eyes open, sprawled on the ground beside surviving victims with foam bubbling from their mouths as they gasped for air.
Trump’s reference to a “red line,” in reply to a reporter’s question, was immediately compared to Obama’s 2012 warning that Assad would cross a “red line” if his forces used chemical weapons.
As a result, Obama came under intense pressure to launch a military attack after Syrian forces used sarin nerve gas in an attack that killed more than 1,400 people in a rebel held area in Damascus in mid-2013.
But Obama ultimately refused, focusing instead on an international disarmament effort that officials said ultimately destroyed or removed Assad’s chemical weapons arsenal and production facilities.
Trump’s options are not that different, nor any more guaranteed of success, than were Obama’s difficult choices.
Airstrikes on the runways that Syrian forces use to launch bombing missions would have only temporary, minimal effect, experts said.
Helicopters, which Syrian troops have used to drop improvised “barrel bombs” on civilian targets, can fly from almost anywhere.
Complicating the calculus, more than 1,000 U.S. troops now are deployed in Syria. Many are helping Syrian rebel militias fight against Islamic State, especially as they close in on the group’s stronghold at Raqqah.
A major U.S. attack on Assad’s forces could make the Americans targets for retaliation from Syrian troops.
In any case, a “one-off strike” would have no real effect, said Frederic C. Hof, a former Obama administration adviser on Syria and director of the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council in Washington.
“It’s basically telling Assad ‘Do what you want to civilians, just not with chemicals,’” he said. “We’ll go back to where we were in 2013.”
Any attack needs to be coupled with a diplomatic effort to get Russia to rein in Assad’s targeting of schools, marketplaces, and apartment blocks, Hof said, adding that “otherwise, Assad will return to business as usual.”
The options in Syria also have become more complex since 2015 because Russian and Iranian forces have poured in to help Assad. An attack on his forces risks a confrontation with Russia, a nuclear-powered rival that Trump had hoped to recruit for the fight against Islamic State.
There were indications that the administration was losing patience with Russia.
“It is very important that (the Russians) consider carefully their continued support for the Assad regime,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told reporters.
Tillerson added there was “no doubt in our minds” that Assad’s government was responsible for the poison gas attack. He said there is “no role” for Assad in Syria’s future, reversing the position he had expressed last week.
Tillerson will visit Moscow next week. Although the trip was previously planned, it will focus in part on Russia’s continued support for Assad, officials said Thursday.
Tillerson called his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, on Wednesday to hear Russia’s version of the Syria attack, a senior State Department official said.
Moscow has backed Assad’s claims that Syrian forces were not responsible, saying the toxic gas was released in an airstrike on a rebel storage facility.
At the United Nations Security Council, a draft resolution by the United States, France and Great Britain that condemns Assad was revised slightly on Russian insistence, with a vote possible late Thursday.
But Russia is likely to veto it, as it vetoed previous measures against Syria’s use of chemical weapons.
A chorus grew on Capitol Hill for decisive action against Assad.
Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., a former U.S. Air Force fighter pilot, said targeted airstrikes could temporarily cripple the Syrian government’s use of chemical arms.
“I’m ashamed of our government’s action so far — and inaction,” Kinzinger told reporters. “This is the first conflict we’ve accepted the use of chemical weapons on the battleground since World War I. It can’t be tolerated.”
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., chairman of the Armed Services Committee, and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., argued for military action to stop Assad’s “brutal slaughter of innocent civilians” by grounding his air force.
“Assad is trying to see what he can get away with. The rest of the region and the world is also watching to see how our country will respond, and what that means for them,” the senators said in a statement. “This is a test of the new administration, but also for our entire country.”
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