The United States and Russia blamed each other Saturday for heightened international tensions after US, UK and French strikes against targets in Syria over the alleged use of chemical weapons.
As leaders of the three Western allies exchanged calls declaring the strikes a success against future use of illegal munitions, the US and Russian ambassadors to the United Nations pointed fingers during an emergency session of the UN Security Council.
The overnight strikes hit three sites — one in Damascus and two in Homs — which President Donald Trump said were “associated with the chemical weapon capabilities of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.”
The United States remains “locked and loaded” to strike Syria again in response to new chemical attacks, said Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the United Nations, who accused Russia, a key Syrian ally, of covering up for the Assad government.
“The pictures of dead children were not fake news,” she told the Security Council. “They were the result of the Syrian regime’s barbaric inhumanity.”
But Russia failed to garner the necessary Security Council votes for a resolution condemning “the aggression against the Syrian Arab Republic by the US and its allies in violation of international law and the UN Charter.”
After the Security Council session, Haley’s Russian counterpart, Vassily Nebenzia, called the day’s developments “a blow to a political settlement” in the Syria crisis.
“I hope that hot heads will cool down and we can rebuild what has been destroyed,” Nebenzia told reporters, adding that the United States, France and the UK had engaged in “diplomacy of mythmaking, hypocrisy and falsehoods.”
Bashar Jaafari, Syria’s ambassador to United Nations, accused the three Western allies of undermining international peace and security and asked that copies of the UN Charter be distributed to their representatives so they can “enlighten themselves and awaken themselves from their ignorance and tyranny.”
The airstrikes followed a week of threats of retaliation for a suspected chemical weapons attack on civilians in Douma, outside Damascus, where Syrian forces have long been battling rebels.
Russian President Vladimir Putin called the strikes an “act of aggression against a sovereign state” and said they were against the UN Charter.
Assad said the airstrikes would “only increase the determination of Syria and its people to continue fighting and crushing terrorism in every inch of the country,” according to Syrian state TV.
• François Delattre, France’s ambassador to the United Nations, called for a dismantling of Syria’s chemical program “in a verifiable and irreversible way,” a ceasefire so that humanitarian convoys can reach Eastern Ghouta on a daily basis and a “inclusive political solution” to the conflict.
• Haley said the UK, France and the United States “acted, not as revenge” but to “deter the future use of chemical weapons by holding the Syrian regime responsible for its atrocities against humanity.”
• UK Ambassador Karen Pierce told the Security Council that her country, France and the United States will pursue a diplomatic solution so long as Syria halts its chemical weapons program and destroys its weapons stockpiles, among other conditions.
• UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urged the states to show restraint in “these dangerous circumstances and avoid any acts that could escalate matters and worsen the suffering of the Syrian people.”
• Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said the United States and its allies had committed a “major crime” in Syria.
• NATO allies expressed their “full support” for the strikes, the alliance’s secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, told reporters in Brussels, Belgium.
• The European Union foreign policy chief said the EU supported efforts to prevent the use of chemical weapons.
• Trump, UK Prime Minister Theresa May and French President Emmanuel Macron, in separate phones calls, agreed that the military strikes had been a success.
• Members of the international chemical weapons watchdog, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, arrived Saturday in Damascus. The team is on a fact-finding mission to the site of the Douma attack.
The Syrian Foreign Ministry called on the international community “to strongly condemn this aggression,” warning it would “pose a threat to international peace and security as a whole,” in a statement published by the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency.
Earlier, Assad’s office tweeted a video of the Syrian President going to work Saturday, with the caption “a morning of steadfastness.”
Danny Makki, a British-born Syrian journalist in Damascus, told CNN the strikes woke up his neighborhood. “You could tell straight away that this wasn’t your average Damascus nighttime battle. It was something far bigger,” he said.
Still, Syrians expressed doubt the military action would change anything.
“Frankly I expected a stronger strike, especially with the blasts that I heard. At least I am glad the strikes didn’t attack civilian areas,” said Yasser, 28, a Damascus teacher whose last name was not used for security reasons.
“I think this strike is a strong message to Assad for the chemical weapons, but I don’t think Assad will change.”
Firas Abdullah, a media activist recently evacuated from Ghouta, said, “It is not enough. I can describe it as — it’s just a media strike.”
In a televised address Friday night announcing the strikes, Trump said he had decided to take action because last weekend’s action by Assad were “not the actions of a man, they are crimes of a monster instead.”
The strikes — the strongest concerted action yet by Western forces in Syria — were launched at 9 p.m. ET Friday as most of Europe and the Middle East was shrouded in darkness.
Pentagon: ‘Precise, overwhelming and effective’
Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the first allied strike targeted a scientific research center in greater Damascus involved in the development and production of chemical weapons.
The second site targeted was a chemical weapons storage facility west of Homs, while the third was a chemical equipment storage facility and important command post.
In a Pentagon briefing Saturday, Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, the director of the Joint Staff, said the strikes would set back Syria’s chemical weapons capability for years.
McKenzie described the mission as “precise, overwhelming and effective,” adding that “none of our aircraft or missiles in this operation were successfully engaged” by Syrian forces.
Chief Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White said the strikes “successfully hit every target” and that the allies “took every measure” to hit only the intended targets.
Syrian and Russian officials gave a different assessment of the effectiveness of Syrian air defenses.
The Syrian armed forces said 110 missiles were fired on Syrian targets and that the country’s defense systems “intercepted most of the missiles, but some hit targets including the Research Center in Barzeh.”
Three civilians were wounded in Homs after “several” missiles were intercepted by Syrian air defense systems, Syrian state TV said.
The Russian Defense Ministry said Syria had intercepted 71 out of 103 cruise missiles launched by the US and its allies, according to the Russian Embassy in London. It said only seven missiles had reached two Syrian military airfields and that “no serious damage to infrastructure was inflicted.”
Russian state news agency TASS reported that none of the missiles fired by the three Western nations struck areas near its naval and air bases in Syria. Those bases come under the protection of Russian air defense units.
UK’s May: ‘Not about regime change’
In a televised statement Saturday, May said UK forces had undertaken a “limited and targeted strike” and that there had been “no practicable alternative to the use of force to degrade and deter the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime.”
While a full assessment has not yet been completed, “we believe that the action was successful,” she said. “This was not about interfering in a civil war. And it was not about regime change.”
Russia’s Ministry of Defense said it believed the Western allies’ action was not in retaliation for what happened in Douma but instead was a reaction to the Syrian army’s “success” in liberating territory from rebels.
Iran, also a key ally of the Assad government, also condemned the strikes. “I firmly declare that the Presidents of US and France and British PM committed a major crime,” Khamenei tweeted.
Turkey, another important player in the Syrian conflict, said it viewed the airstrikes as “an appropriate response” to the Douma attack, according to a Turkish Foreign Ministry statement.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in a televised speech to supporters of his political party, said that not responding would be “unthinkable.”
“It’s impossible for us to accept the situation that Syrian children fall into,” he said.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said all available evidence pointed to the Assad regime being responsible for the Douma attack and criticized Russia for blocking an independent investigation through the Security Council.
“The military operation was necessary and appropriate to preserve the effectiveness of the international ban on the use of chemical weapons and to warn the Syrian regime of further violations,” Merkel said in a statement.
An Israeli official told CNN that the strikes enforced the red line drawn by Trump last year. In April 2017, the United States launched a military strike on a Syrian government airbase in response to a chemical weapons attack that killed dozens of civilians.
“Syria continues to engage in and provide a base for murderous actions, including those of Iran, that put its territory, its forces and its leadership at risk,” the Israeli official said.