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US targets Syrian chemical weapons facilities with strikes

US targets Syrian chemical weapons facilities with strikes
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The United States along with French and British forces on Friday night fired more than 100 missiles at three different targets in Syria in an to attempt to take out vital chemical weapons facilities run by the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

The strikes, which officials called retaliation for an apparent chemical attack in a Damascus suburb last weekend that killed dozens of civilians, targeted three chemical weapons facilities in the Syrian capitol and in the city of Homs, roughly 100 miles north.

Defense Secretary James MattisJames Norman MattisUS mulls sending warships through Taiwan Strait amid China tensions Overnight Defense: US, South Korea cancel another military exercise | Dozen sailors injured in chopper crash on aircraft carrier | Navy vet charged with sending toxic letters US, South Korea cancel another military exercise MORE, who appeared at the Pentagon following the strikes on Friday night, stressed that the attack was meant to cripple the Syria's chemical weapons program and send a message to Assad.

“Clearly the Assad regime did not get the message last year,” Mattis said, referring to the retaliatory U.S. strike on a Syrian air field following a previous chemical weapons attack. “This time our allies and we have struck harder.”

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“Together we have sent a clear message to Assad and his murderous lieutenants that they should not perpetrate another chemical weapons attack, for which they will be held accountable.”

The action Friday was the second such strike Trump has authorized in Syria after the U.S. launched 59 Tomahawk missiles from warships at a Syrian airbase in April 2017. That strike was in response to a chemical weapons attack that killed 80 civilians.

Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford, who appeared alongside Mattis, described the first target as a military “scientific research center located in the greater Damascus area ... for the research, development, production and testing of chemical and biological warfare technology.”

The other two targets were near Homs and included a chemical weapons storage facility west of the city that is the primary location of Syria’s sarin gas, and another location that “contained both chemical weapons equipment storage facility and an important command post.”

Mattis and Dunford spoke at the Pentagon roughly an hour after Trump announced that the U.S., in concert with France and the United Kingdom, had launched "precision strikes" on Syria in retaliation for last weekend's suspected chemical attack.

The two also expressed confidence that the U.S. had the evidence needed to confirm the most recent attack.

“I am confident the Syrian regime conducted a chemical attack on innocent people,” Mattis said. “We are very confident chlorine was used, we are not ruling out sarin now.”

Dunford provided few details on the equipment used to carry out the strike Friday, citing operational security, but said U.S., British and French naval and air force equipment were involved in the operation.

A defense official later said at least one U.S. Navy warship based in the Red Sea as well as U.S. B-1 bombers were used.

Following the strike, reports of a retaliatory actions emerged. The Syrian state-run television network said Syrian air defenses had hit 13 missiles in the Damascus suburb of Al-Kiswah.

Asked about the claims, Dunford said the U.S. has seen an attempt from Syria to take out missiles with their own defense system. But Mattis added there was no reports of losses to the United States.

Dunford added he was “not aware of any Russian activity” in response, though he added more details might be available in the morning. 

Mattis did not reveal the number of missiles used in the strike, but said the U.S. and its partners had “used a little over double the number of weapons this year than we used last year.” 

The retired four-star general stressed that the targets were chosen “to hurt the chemical weapons program” while at the same time avoiding civilian casualties and a broader escalation in the region.

“We confined it to the chemical weapons type targets. We were not out to expand this, we were very precise and proportionate. But at the same time, it was a heavy strike,” Mattis said.

In addition, the U.S. “specifically identified” targets to “mitigate the risk of Russian forces being involved,” Dunford said.

But in anticipation of any pushback from Syria or Russia, Dunford said the U.S. commander in Syria has changed the force protection levels for the 2,000 U.S. troops there fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria in case of retaliation.

“As you can image, the commander always takes prudent measures, especially in an environment that we’re in tonight,” Dunford said. “So they did make adjustments.”

Dunford said to ensure the airspace was clear, the Pentagon used the normal deconfliction line prior to the strike. He said the Russians were not notified ahead of the attack.

“The only communications that took place specifically associated with this operation before the targets were struck was the normal deconfliction of the airspace, the procedures that are in place for all of our operations in Syria,” he said. “We did not coordinate targets or any planning with the Russians.”

The Trump administration in last year’s strike on the Syrian airbase — which was used to store Russian aircraft — notified Moscow of the target beforehand.

Mattis and Dunford also made clear the strikes had ended for the time being.

"This wave of air strikes is over and that is why we're out here speaking to you now,” Dunford said.

Asked if the United States and its allies planned to continue military operations beyond Friday’s strikes, Mattis replied that it depended on Assad.

“Should he decide to use more chemical weapons in the future and of course, the powers that have signed the chemical weapons prohibition have every reason to challenge Assad if should he choose to violate that,” Mattis said.

"But right now this is a one-time shot and I believe that it sent a very strong message to dissuade him to, to deter him from doing this again."

— Updated April 14 at 9:49 a.m.