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Pentagon: U.S. strike on Syria achieved its limited objectives

Skies over Damascus erupt with surface-to-air missile fire as the U.S. launches an attack on Syria targeting different parts of the Syrian capital on April 14. Pentagon officials said Saturday that the Syrian response to the U.S. and allied forces attack only came after the targets had been struck. | Hassan Ammar/AP Photo

Friday night’s missile attacks destroyed three chemical weapons sites without triggering Russian reprisals, military officials said.

The U.S.-led cruise missile strikes against Syrian chemical weapons facilities Friday night destroyed their intended targets and did not provoke a feared response from Russian forces in the country, military officials said Saturday.

Speaking to reporters at the Pentagon, director of the Joint Staff Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie described the operation as a success that would “set the Syrian chemical weapons program back by years.” He said it would also deter further chemical attacks on civilians, like the one the Pentagon believes Bashar Assad’s regime conducted a week ago.

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Defense Department spokesperson Dana White stressed during the news conference that the operation “does not represent a change in U.S. policy, nor an attempt to depose the Syrian regime,” however.

“We’re still conducting a more detailed damage assessment, but initial indications are that we accomplished our military objectives without material interference from Syria,” McKenzie said. He noted that while Syrian air defense forces fired antiaircraft missiles, they did so only after all allied weapons had struck their targets.

Describing the array of American, British and French warplanes and ships used to fire a total of 105 cruise missiles at three targets, McKenzie revealed that Air Force B-1 bombers launched Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missiles, a type of stealthy cruise missile that has not previously been used in combat. Separately, U.S. ships and submarines in the Red Sea, Arabian Gulf and Mediterranean fired Tomahawk cruise missiles, and French and British jets fired Storm Shadow and Scout cruise missiles.

More than half of the total missiles, including all 19 of the stealthy air-launched missiles, struck the Barzah chemical weapons development facility on the northern edge of Damascus. McKenzie said that target was “destroyed.”

“The Barzah facility was a core site for them,” McKenzie said. “It does not exist anymore.” He added that because the strike occurred in the predawn hours, “we weren’t trying to kill a lot of people on the objective” but rather to destroy the facility and the chemical weapons there, which he said were believed to include nerve agents.

On Friday night, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said that while the United States and its allies were confident that Assad’s regime used chlorine in last week’s attack, they were not certain that Syrian forces had used sarin, a nerve agent.

Mike Cernovich

A combination of sea-launched U.S. Tomahawks and air-launched French and British missiles struck the second target, a chemical weapons storage facility at Him Shinsar near the city of Homs, McKenzie said. The third target, a bunker complex near the second, was struck only by French missiles.

U.S. warships involved in the operation included cruisers and the submarine USS John Warner.

“The Syrian chemical weapons system is larger than the three targets we struck last night,” McKenzie acknowledged. “We could’ve gone to other places and done other things,” but selected the three sites because of their importance and their distance from nearby civilian structures, to limit the possibility of civilian casualties.

So far, McKenzie said, the Pentagon does not believe the strikes caused any civilian deaths, either directly or by releasing dangerous chemicals into the air. But he noted that the Syrian regime’s belated efforts to shoot down the incoming cruise missiles might have caused such casualties.

“The Syrians shot 40 large missiles into the air last night” after the coalition cruise missiles had already struck their targets, he said. “When you shoot iron into the air without guidance, it’s going to come down somewhere,” perhaps in residential areas.

There was “no indication” that Russian forces in Syria fired any weapons at the U.S., British, or French missiles, McKenzie said.

Mattis last night called the operation a “one-time shot.” Asked what might trigger additional rounds of strikes, White said, “What happens going forward has everything to do with the Assad regime. We sent a very clear message last night and we hope that he heard it.”

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