The U.S. launched a missile strike in Syria on Thursday night in response to a chemical attack earlier this week that officials said was carried out by forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad.
The missile strike, which reportedly killed at least seven people, was ordered by President Trump a day after he said his his view of Assad had changed because of the chemical attack.
“Tonight, I ordered a targeted military strike on the airfield in Syria from where the chemical attack was launched,” Trump told reporters at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida.
“It is in this vital national security interest of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons,” the president said. “There can be no dispute that Syria used banned chemical weapons.”
Warships launched 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at the Shayrat Air Base near the city of Homs, where the gas attack originated, the Pentagon said. The missiles were launched at 8:40 p.m. EDT, which was early Friday morning in Syria. They targeted aircraft, shelters, petroleum and logistical storage, ammunition supply bunkers, air defense systems and radars at the Shayrat Air Base, the Pentagon said in a statement.
The strike is a dramatic escalation of U.S. involvement in Syria; it is the first direct American assault on Assad’s government and the most significant military action of Trump’s presidency.
The Pentagon said that initial reports indicate that the strike "severely damaged or destroyed Syrian aircraft and support infrastructure and equipment at Shayrat Airfield, reducing the Syrian Government's ability to deliver chemical weapons."
Assad has the backing of Moscow in his war against Syrian rebels seeking his ouster, and Russians were on the ground near the strikes.
Russia condemned the attack as an "act of aggression," saying it could endanger anti-terrorist military cooperation with the U.S. in Syria.
But the Pentagon said it had been in contact with Russia, allowing Moscow to protect its forces.
"Russian forces were notified in advance of the strike using the established deconfliction line," Pentagon spokesman Jeff Davis said in a statement. "U.S. military planners took precautions to minimize risk to Russian or Syrian personnel located at the airfield."
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that Russian President Vladimir Putin was not notified directly.
A televised statement from the Syrian armed forces said seven people were killed in the strike and nine others wounded.
The move was widely praised abroad, with governments in Britain, France, Israel, Italy, Turkey and Saudi Arabia all issuing statements of support.
Lawmakers from both parties were largely supportive at home as well, though many urged Trump to work closer with Congress.
"Making sure Assad knows that when he commits such despicable atrocities he will pay a price is the right thing to do," Senate Democratic Leader Chuck SchumerChuck SchumerBiden discusses agenda with Schumer, Pelosi ahead of pivotal week CEOs urge Congress to raise debt limit or risk 'avoidable crisis' If .5 trillion 'infrastructure' bill fails, it's bye-bye for an increasingly unpopular Biden MORE said in a statement.
The attack represented a turnaround for Trump, whose administration previously had been cool to forcing Assad from office.
Last week during a visit to Ankara, Tillerson said Assad's fate would be decided by Syria's people.
That stance apparently changed after Syrian aircraft used chemical weapons this week.
Trump said Wednesday he changed his views after seeing horrific images of children that were broadcast on television in the aftermath of the gas attack, which he said "crossed a lot of lines."
“I do change and I am flexible, and I’m proud of that flexibility,” the president told reporters.
Former President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein Obama Chelsea Manning tests positive for COVID-19 The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by National Industries for the Blind - Tight security for Capitol rally; Biden agenda slows Obama backs Trudeau in Canadian election MORE threatened to launch strikes against Assad’s government for using chemical weapons against his own citizens. But the previous administration never took military action.
The Obama administration instead struck a deal with Russia in 2013 to have Syria eliminate its chemical weapon stockpiles under international supervision.
Trump called that an empty threat.
"Russia has failed in its responsibility,” Tillerson told reporters late Thursday. “Either Russia has been complicit or Russia has been simply incompetent.”
Updated at 7:34 a.m.