MIAMI (CBSMiami/AP) – President Donald Trump ordered an air strike against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in retaliation to this week’s chemical weapons attack that killed more than 80 people, including children.
“On Tuesday, Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad launched a horrible chemical weapons attack on innocent civilians,” Trump said. “Using a deadly nerve agent, Assad choked out the lives of helpless men, women and children. It was a slow and brutal death for so many.”
“It is in vital national security interest of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons,” the president added.
Trump said there is “no dispute” that Syria used banned chemical weapons, violating its obligations under the Chemical Weapons Convention.
“Years of previous attempts at changing Assad’s behavior have all failed, and failed very dramatically,” he said. “As a result, the refugee crisis continues to deepen and the region continues to destabilize, threatening the United States and its allies.”
“Tonight I call on all civilized nations to join us in seeking to end the slaughter and bloodshed in Syria,” he added. “And also to end terrorism of all kinds and all types.”
U.S. officials said Syrian government aircraft killed dozens of civilians by using chlorine mixed with a nerve agent, possibly sarin, earlier this week.
Doctors from the World Health Organization helped conduct autopsies on victims. Turkish health officials said the results point to possible exposure to sarin nerve agent.
As CBS News reported, nearly 60 cruise missiles were launched from U.S. ships in the Mediterranean Sea, targeting an airfield in Syria.
According to Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis, the targets, which included hangars and fuel storage areas, were chosen with the aim of making it impossible to operate from the airfield. He said the strike was deemed successful and the airfield out of commission, CBS News reported.
“Each cruise missile carries a 1,000-pound warhead. So nearly 60 cruise missiles going off in 60 seconds amounts to 60,000 pounds of explosives in the space of 60 seconds,” CBS News’ National Security Correspondent David Martin reported.
The airfield is about 50 miles due south of the village that was hit by Tuesday’s gas attack, and it’s believed to be where the plane that dropped the gas took off.
Given that Russia is a major ally of Syria, this creates some complexities in the country.
“I think the key complexity here is: We would not want to attack a Syrian target at which there were Russian forces. We would not want to kill Russian forces in such an attack, because that obviously could lead us into a war with Russia,” former Deputy Director of the CIA Michael Morell told CBS News. “So I’m pretty confident that the Pentagon was confident that there were not Russian forces at this particular airfield.”
Deputy Russian Ambassador to U.N. Vladimir Safronkov commented on the air strike.
Defense Secretary James Mattis briefed Trump Thursday evening on the military options against Syria, CBS News reported.
The White House notified “two dozen” members of Congress about the strike and Vice President Mike Pence worked out of the Situation Room, an official told CBS News.
Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson were in Florida, where Trump met with China’s leader Xi Jinping.
“What happened in Syria is a disgrace to humanity,” Trump said to reporters on Air Force One Thursday while on his way to Florida. “[Assad]’s there and I guess he’s running things, so something should happen.”
The Chinese president arrived in West Palm Beach on Thursday afternoon for the leaders’ first meeting since then-candidate Trump criticized China on the campaign trail.
Tillerson spoke out against Russia’s support of the Assad regime.
“There is no doubt in our minds… that Syria, the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad are responsible for this attack,” Tillerson said. “I think it’s very important that the Russian government consider carefully their continued support for the Assad regime.”
Tillerson’s comments come after U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley spoke out against the attack Wednesday.
“Yesterday’s attack was a new low even for the barbaric Assad regime,” Haley said. “Russia cannot escape responsibility.”
“If Russia has the influence in Syria that it claims to have, we need to see them use it,” Haley said. “We need to see them put an end to these horrific acts. How many children have to die before Russia cares?”
The bombing represents President Donald Trump’s most dramatic military order since taking office. The Obama Administration threatened attacking Assad’s forces for previous chemical weapons attacks, but never followed through.
Republican Sen. Marco Rubio released a statement following news of the air strike.
“I salute the bravery and skill of the men and women of our Armed Forces who conducted this mission. Tonight’s strike against the Assad regime’s Shayrat Air Base will hopefully diminish his capacity to commit atrocities against innocent civilians. By acting decisively against the very facility from which Assad launched his murderous chemical weapons attack, President Trump has made it clear to Assad and those who empower him that the days of committing war crimes with impunity are over. What must follow is a real and comprehensive strategy to ensure that Assad is no longer a threat to his people and to U.S. security, and that Russia no longer has free reign to support his regime.”
Rubio’s Democratic counterpart, Sen. Bill Nelson, also released a statement supporting the administration’s air strike.
“I support the administration’s strike on the air base that launched the chemical attack. I hope this teaches President Assad not to use chemical weapons again.”
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen immediately tweeted out that the military strike was the right call.
CBS4’s Hank Tester caught up with Ros-Lehtinen, who reiterated what she said on social media.