WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump on Saturday warned the regime of Syrian strongman Bashar Assad that if it uses deadly gas on civilians again that “the United States is locked and loaded,” ready to launch another damaging airstrike like the one Friday night.
That’s the message U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley delivered Saturday to the U.N. Security Council after the United States, France and Britain rained down 105 missiles on three targets, a strike that American officials said had demolished the “heart” of the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons program.
The airstrikes came in response to the Assad regime’s poison gas attack that killed at least 40 civilians a week ago. And after the Pentagon reported every missile hit its target and overwhelmed the much-vaunted Syrian air-defense system with no reported casualties, Trump took a victory lap.
“A perfectly executed strike last night. 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,” Trump tweeted. “Mission Accomplished!”
That last phrase echoes a banner that hung behind President George W. Bush in 2003 when he made a premature declaration of victory in Iraq, though U.S. troops remain in Iraq 15 years later — a mistake some critics say they fear Trump might repeat in Syria.
Pentagon and senior administration officials acknowledged Saturday that the airstrikes did not rid all chemical weapons from Syria — the regime still has stocks of chlorine and sarin gas — and that much work remains to reach a political and diplomatic solution.
Questions also remained about how much of those stocks Syria moved from the targeted sites beforehand, given the warning Trump gave with his tweets earlier this week promising an attack, or because of U.S. contacts with Russia to clear Syrian airspace.
Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White defended Trump’s tweet. “Last night’s operations were very successful. They were very effective. We hit our sites,” White said at a news briefing. “So it was a mission accomplished.”
The airstrikes began as Trump addressed the nation Friday night.
“This operation was carefully orchestrated and methodically planned to minimize potential collateral damage,” White said. “I can assure you we took every measure and precaution to strike only what we targeted ... and we successfully hit every target.”
The military action does not change the course of U.S. policy in Syria, which is to eradicate ISIS, but was intended to deliver a message that use of internationally banned weapons will not be tolerated, White said. The way forward will depend on Syria, Russia and Iran, she said.
Those countries condemned the airstrikes and strenuously denied the allies’ claim that the Assad regime used chemical weapons on the city of Douma on April 7.
A senior Trump administration official on Saturday, though, said victims’ symptoms as well as photographs and videos provide evidence that the Syrian regime used not only chlorine, as the Pentagon stated Friday, but also the more deadly sarin gas.
“We assess that both sarin and chlorine [were] used in this attack,” the official said.
Assad led the defiance against the attacks, as hundreds of Syrians gathered in Damascus, where they flashed victory signs and waved flags, by tweeting, “Good souls will not be humiliated.”
Syrian TV reported that Syria’s air defenses responded to the attack, and the Russian military said Syrian air defense units downed 71 of the allies’ missiles. But Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, director of the Joint Staff at the Pentagon, said the Syrian air defense fired 40 missiles, mostly after the attack, without a specific target.
Russia and Iran called the use of force by the United States and its allies a “military crime” and “act of aggression.”
The U.N. Security Council met Saturday in an emergency session that Russia called to debate the strikes, but rejected a Russian resolution calling for condemnation of the “aggression” by the three Western allies. All three are among the five permanent members of the council.
Neither Syria nor its Russian or Iranian allies retaliated, Pentagon officials said.
The U.S.-led operation won broad Western support. The NATO alliance gave its full backing. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said in Brussels that the attack was about ensuring that chemical weapons cannot be used with impunity.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel called the attack “necessary and appropriate.”
The airstrikes came a year after Trump ordered an attack on a Syrian airstrip in response to a chemical weapon attack shortly after he became president, to damage the regime’s ability to deploy poison gas in its aircraft. The airstrip became functional again a few days later.
“This strike was double the size of the last strike in April 2017. And I‘d also emphasize that this strike was a multinational effort, McKenzie said on Saturday.
He said the three allies’ warships and aircraft in the Red Sea, northern Arabian Gulf and the eastern Mediterranean launched 105 missiles and hit all of their targets about 4 a.m. Syrian time — about 9 p.m. Eastern time.
The allies aimed most of the firepower on the Barzah Research and Development Center, the “heart” of the chemical weapon program, located in the greater Damascus area. McKenzie said the U.S. military deployed 76 missiles and destroyed that facility.
“Initial assessments are that this target was destroyed,” he said. “This is going to set the Syrian chemical weapon program back for years.”
All three allies fired 22 weapons at the Him Shinshar Chemical Weapons Storage Site just west of Homs, and the U.S. military launched seven missiles at the Him Shinshar Chemical Weapons Bunker, McKenzie said.
“The time for talk ended last night,” Haley told the members of the U.N. Security Council on Saturday.
“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,’ ” Haley said. “When our president draws a red line, our president enforces a red line.”