U.S. says air strikes cripple Syria chemical weapons program

 In U.S.
WASHINGTON/BEIRUT (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 center 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 multisided 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,” U.S. 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.

The 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 “while the available information is much greater on the chlorine use, we do have significant information that also points to sarin use” in the attack.

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.

ASSAD ‘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, 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”.

Late on Saturday Syria time, a large explosion was heard in a Syrian government-controlled area in a rural region south of Aleppo, according to the Britain-based war monitor, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The Observatory said the cause of the explosion was unknown, as well as its target.

Russian and Iranian military help over the past three years has allowed Assad to 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.

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