The U.S. fired dozens of cruise missiles at a Syrian airbase Thursday, the first direct assault by American forces against the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
The attack, ordered by President Donald Trump, was prompted by a deadly chemical attack in northwestern Syria earlier this week that Washington has blamed on Assad.
Here’s what you need to know:
A total of 59 Tomahawk missiles were launched by American forces targeting the Shayrat airfield in Homs, western Syria, according to a Pentagon spokesperson.
The strike was made from two navy destroyers positioned in the Mediterranean Sea, the Associated Press reports. President Trump spoke to reporters shortly after the attack, calling the assault a “vital national security interest” and calling on other nations to “end the slaughter and bloodshed in Syria.”
The Pentagon said the strike targeted aircraft, aircraft shelters, petroleum, ammunition supply bunkers, air defense systems and radars, and that the U.S. took precaution to avoid civilian casualties. Russian forces, which also operate in the Shayrat airfield, were notified in advance of the strike, the Pentagon spokesperson said.
Why Were the Missiles Launched?
The U.S. assault came in response to a deadly chemical attack earlier this week in the Syrian town of Khan Sheikhoun, in the country’s northwestern Idlib province. At least 72 people were killed, including some children, making it the deadliest such attack in years in the country.
The Pentagon briefed reporters that it had tracked the aircraft involved in the chemical strike back to the base on radar. U.S. officials say they believe the chemical used was Sarin, AP reports.
The U.N. and Western leaders have blamed the attack on the Syrian government, which has denied using chemical weapons against its own citizens.
Russia, a Syrian ally, has also denied the government’s guilt, claiming that the deadly chemical exposure was caused by a rebel-owned arsenal that was struck during airstrikes by Syrian forces. This claim has been widely dismissed by world leaders.
The gruesome chemical attack caused immediate international outrage. “I think what happened in Syria is a disgrace to humanity,” Trump said during a press conference Wednesday.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson suggested, in a sudden shift of U.S. attitudes toward Assad, “it would seem there would be no role for him to govern the Syrian people.”
What Is Syria’s Response?
A report on Syrian state television referred to the missile attack as an act of “aggression,” AP reported. Citing an unnamed military official, the report said the Syrian military confirmed that the attack had caused material damage at the airbase, but did not elaborate on the degree of the destruction.
State television said the attack “leads to losses,” but thus far offered little further detail.
Homs Governor Talal Barazi responded by claiming that the U.S. strikes were meant to “support the terrorists on the ground,” the AP reported.