Syria strikes: Site of chemical attack hit again

(CNN) — New airstrikes targeted a town in Syria that was hit by a chemical attack earlier this week, activists said, less than a day after the US bombarded a Syrian airbase to “send a message” to the Assad regime.

It wasn’t immediately clear who conducted the strikes on Khan Sheikhoun, which was hit on Friday and Saturday, though only Russian and Syrian regime aircraft have been bombing that area of rebel-held Idlib province.

The latest attacks follow a missile strike early Friday by the United States on a base in western Syria that the US says was used to launch Tuesday’s chemical attack, which left more than 85 people dead and hundreds more injured.

The new strikes came as Russia, the Syrian regime’s main ally, sent a frigate armed with cruise missiles to a port in western Syria in an apparent show of force in response to the US action.

Key developments

The Syrian air force resumed flight operations at the base that the US had struck Friday. Pentagon probes possible Russia involvement in chemical attack that prompted US strike. US officials say about 20 planes were destroyed in Friday’s attack on the Shayrat base. US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley to UN says US ‘prepared to do more’ in Syria. Russian President Vladimir Putin said US strike was an “act of aggression.”

At least one woman was killed and three other people injured in Saturday’s strikes in Khan Sheikhoun, two activists in the town said. The strike that killed the woman happened in a residential neighborhood, activist Alaa Al-Youssef told CNN.

It wasn’t clear where the strikes were launched from, but the Syrian air force resumed flight operations at the base that the US had struck Friday, two pro-regime media outlets and an opposition group said Saturday.

A video on Instagram, posted Saturday by a reporter from the state-run Russia-24 outlet, purports to show a jet rolling down a tarmac at the airbase. The caption reads: “Return to work at Shayrat.”

A US defense official said Friday’s strikes were not intended to damage runways or fully disable the base. Instead, the strikes hit aircraft, fuel storage, weapons dumps and other equipment, aiming to send a message to the Syrian regime that any use of chemical weapons would not be tolerated, the official said.

In the aftermath of the US strike, Russia pledged to help strengthen Syria’s air defenses. Russian state media reported that a frigate, the Admiral Grigorovich, would call at a logistics base at Tartus, Syria. It had earlier picked up supplies at the Black Sea port of Novorossiysk.

NATO called it one of the largest deployments from Russia in decades.

Retired US Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling, a CNN military analyst, said the frigate appeared to be a show of force by Russia, which since late 2015 has been conducting airstrikes in Syria against forces opposing the Syrian regime.

“I think the Russians were caught off guard (by the US strikes),” Hertling said. “So they want to make sure they’re tracking those (US) ships.”

US quiet on next steps

US President Donald Trump praised his military for Friday’s missile strike. “Congratulations to our great military men and women for representing the United States, and the world, so well in the Syria attack,” Trump posted Saturday to Twitter.

But the White House late Friday refused to say whether its strike on Shayrat airbase was a one-off action or part of a new strategy designed to hobble the military capabilities of President Bashar al-Assad. Nor would it say whether the US believed Assad should step down after the chemical attack on Khan Sheikhoun that killed at least 80 people and injured dozens more on Tuesday.

The White House refused to discuss next steps. Press Secretary Sean Spicer said Trump would not “telegraph his next move.” Speaking to reporters at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, Spicer said the US missile attack was “very decisive, justified and proportional.”

He declined to say whether Trump now believed Assad should relinquish power. “First and foremost the President believes that the Syrian government [and the] Assad regime should abide by the agreement they made not to use chemical weapons,” Spicer said.

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Russia had failed to honor an agreement to to guarantee the elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons. “Clearly, Russia has failed in its responsibility to deliver on that commitment from 2013, he said. “So either Russia has been complicit or Russia has been simply incompetent in its ability to deliver on its end of that agreement.”

British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, meanwhile, canceled his planned Monday visit to Moscow, citing developments in Syria.

In a statement Saturday, Johnson said his priority was to continue contact with the US and others in the run-up to a meeting of G7 foreign ministers in Italy on Monday and Tuesday, with the aim of building “coordinated international support for a ceasefire on the ground and an intensified political process.”

Russia complicit?

US officials have said the Pentagon is looking for any evidence that the Russian government knew about or was complicit in Tuesday’s chemical attack.

A US military official told CNN the Pentagon was examining specifically whether a Russian warplane had bombed a hospital in Khan Sheikhoun five hours after the initial chemical attack, with the aim of destroying evidence.

Russia flatly denies the allegations.

Trump said he ordered the airstrike on the Shayrat base because the US believed aircraft that carried out the chemical attack were launched from there.

Russian President Vladimir Putin denounced the US strike as “act of aggression” and said it violated international law. Tillerson said he was “disappointed” in the Russian response.

Russian Senator Alexey Pushkov said that the disappointment was “mutual” and suggested that Tillerson’s comments were made to gain “leverage” in upcoming US-Russia talks. Tillerson is due to meet Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Moscow next week.

He said on Twitter that the “conditions for negotiations in Moscow were even worse than (former Secretary of State John) Kerry’s times.”

 


Who’s with the US on Syria strike and who isn’t

(CNN) — Nothing is simple about the crisis in Syria.

With conflicting interests and competing global powers, the international community remains at an impasse over Syria’s six-year conflict.

On Friday morning local time, the US military struck a Syrian air base in response to a chemical weapons attack, bringing mixed reaction from global players. Some lauded the action as long overdue, while others condemned it as “an aggression.”

Here’s a look at the key countries involved in Syria, their reactions to the strike and their stakes in the conflict.

United States

Involvement: Since 2014, the United States has headed an international coalition conducting strikes on ISIS targets in Syria. Under former President Barack Obama’s administration, the US launched a military campaign against ISIS in both Iraq and Syria. Since then, President Donald Trump’s administration continued Obama’s bombing campaign against ISIS.

But the strikes marked the first direct military action the United States has taken against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Desired outcome: The Obama administration had said Assad must go. There are questions whether the Trump administration’s approach to Syria will shift from his predecessor. A week ago, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the “longer-term status of President Assad will be decided by the Syrian people.” It remains to be seen how the strikes affect the Trump administration’s policy on Syria.

Russia

Reaction: Opposes strike

Russian President Vladimir Putin regards the US attacks on Syria as “an aggression against a sovereign state in violation of the norms of international law, and under a trumped-up pretext at that,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov was quoted as saying by Russian state-run news agency Sputnik.

This could bring new strain in the US-Russia relationship.

“Cooperation between the Russian and US militaries may be shut down after the US strike,” said Viktor Ozerov, head of the defense committee in the Federation Council to Russian state news agency RIA.

He said Russia will demand an urgent UN Security Council meeting after the US strike, calling it “an act of aggression against a UN member.”

Involvement: Russia is Syria’s most powerful ally and has provided the military might behind President Bashar al-Assad’s grip on the country. Russia has significant economic and military interests in the country, such as a Mediterranean naval base at Tartus, that it is determined to keep. Throughout the years, it has staunchly shielded Syria from UN resolutions in the UN Security Council.

Desired outcome: Putin has made it clear that as far as he’s concerned, Assad isn’t going anywhere for the time being. More broadly, some analysts see Putin using Syria as an opportunity to send a message that it’s a force to be reckoned with — one the United States and its allies can’t ignore.

Saudi Arabia

Reaction: Supports strike

The Saudi Foreign Ministry expressed its “full support … for the American military operations on military targets in Syria,” according to a statement from the Saudi Press Agency.

An official source in the foreign ministry “noted the courageous decision of US President Donald Trump, which represents a response to crimes this regime has committed towards its people in light of the inaction of the international community in stopping it in its tracks.”

Involvement: Saudi Arabia is one of the main supporters of insurgent groups battling the Syrian regime and ISIS. It is also one of the nations participating in the US-led coalition’s strikes.

Desired outcome: Riyadh has pushed for Assad’s ouster, and is not likely to settle for much less.

Jordan

Reaction: Supports strike

Government spokesman Mohammad Momani said Jordan considers the strike “a necessary and appropriate response to the nonstop targeting of innocent civilians” with weapons of mass destruction.

Jordan reiterated its rejection and condemnation of the use of weapons of mass destruction, including the recent chemical attack against civilians in Khan Sheikhoun in Syria’s Idlib province.

Momani called the chemical attack in Idlib province an “inhumane and heinous act.” He repeated Jordan’s support for all international efforts geared toward preventing future recurrence of using chemical weapons after Syria was declared free of them in the past.

Involvement: Jordan is part of the coalition fighting the Islamic State and has taken in hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees. That influx has changed the makeup of the oil-less nation, which shares a 233-mile border with Syria.

Desired outcome: Jordan’s King Abdullah II, speaking at a news conference with President Donald Trump in Washington on Wednesday, said, “We need a political solution that ends the conflict in the country and preserves its unity and territorial integrity. ”

Turkey

Reaction: Supports strike

”We welcome the US operation,” said Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusogulu.

Turkey called the strikes “a positive response to the Assad regime’s war crimes.”

Ibrahim Kalin, Turkey’s presidential spokesman, said in a statement: “The destruction of Shayrat air base marks an important step to ensure that chemical and conventional attacks against the civilian population do not go unpunished.” He also called for a no-fly zone and the creation of safe zones in Syria.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had called Assad a “murderer” over the chemical weapons attack on a rebel-held town in Syria’s Idlib province.

Involvement: The country has a long, porous border with Syria. Thousands of foreign fighters have flowed over it into Syria and hundreds of thousands of refugees have poured out the other way.

Bitterly opposed to Assad, the Turkish government has long supported Syrian rebels. The rise of ISIS and other Islamic extremist groups has seriously complicated matters for Erdogan, who permitted the US-led coalition to launch bombing raids against ISIS positions from Turkish territory.

Desired outcome: Turkey wants to get rid of Assad, remove the growing threat of ISIS and end years of destabilizing conflict along its southern border. But it also wants to stop the Kurds from carving their own state out of the current chaos.

Iran

Reaction: Opposes strike

Iran “strongly condemns” the military strike, said Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Qasemi in the country’s semi-official news agency ISNA.

“We strongly condemn any unilateral military action and the missile attack on the Al Shayrat air base in Syria by the US Navy and believe that such actions, which use the excuse of a suspicious chemical attack in Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib, whose timing and perpetrators are shrouded in a cloud of doubt, only strengthens terrorists who were already weak and adds to the complexity in Syria and the region.”

Involvement: Tehran is a staunch backer of the Assad regime, funneling money, guns and fighters its way. Iran is in an alliance with Russia in its support of the Assad government. Iran’s intervention in Syria is about a much bigger struggle against Sunni militancy.

Desired outcome: Iran, a majority Shiite nation, doesn’t want a Sunni-dominated Syria — especially as the rebels’ main supporters are Iran’s Persian Gulf rivals: Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Iran opposes a military solution to the Syrian conflict and supports one through a political process.

China

Reaction: Opposes strike

China’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, when addressing questions on the US strikes on Syria, said the country opposes the use of force in international affairs, but also reiterated its stance opposing the use of chemical weapons.

“China always opposes the use of force in international affairs and we advocate resolving disputes peacefully through dialogues. … We always hold that the Syrian issue should be resolved through political means.”

China’s “Global Times,” a state-sanctioned tabloid, published an editorial saying that in Trump’s “first major decision on international affairs, his haste and inconsistency has left people with a deep impression.”

Involvement: China’s relationship with Syria is more nuanced. Like Russia, China has repeatedly blocked sanctions attempts against the Syrian regime — leading to a perpetual stalemate at the UN body to take any serious action on Syria. It’s also a trading partner with Syria. There’s a bigger factor though: China opposes foreign intervention in Syria.

Desired outcome: China’s position is that foreign countries shouldn’t meddle in Syria’s internal affairs, and perhaps for good reason. China has had its own share of international controversies over its policies with Tibet as well as allegations of human rights violations.

Widespread backing

Australia: Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said Australia “strongly supports the swift and just response of the US” to the chemical attack in Idlib province.

Syria “committed a shocking war crime” and the US response was “calibrated, proportionate, and targeted,” which will “send a strong message to the Assad regime.”

Israel: The Prime Minister of Israel’s account tweeted that “Israel fully supports President Trump’s decision.”

“In both word and action, @POTUS sent a strong and clear message today that the use and spread of chemical weapons will not be tolerated.

Japan: “The Japanese government supports the US government’s resolve that it will never tolerate the spread and use of chemical weapons,” Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told reporters.

United Kingdom: “The UK government fully supports the US action, which we believe was an appropriate response to the barbaric chemical weapons attack launched by the Syrian regime, and is intended to deter further attacks,” a UK government spokesperson said in a statement.

Spain: “The Spanish government considers that the action taken by the United States in recent hours against a military base in Syria is a measured and proportionate response to the use of chemical weapons against the civil population of the country by the Syrian army,” according to a Spanish government statement.

Italy: “Italy understands the reasons for a US military action, proportionate and well-timed, as a response to an unacceptable feeling of impunity, and as a deterrence signal against the risk of further use of chemical weapons by Assad,” Italian Foreign Minister Angelino Alfano said in a statement on Friday.

World leaders weigh in

North Korean foreign ministry: “The world is clearly witnessing who is the peace breaker and destroyer through this military attack of US to Syria. … Today’s reality proves that our choice to strengthen our nuclear power and to stand against force with force was right a million times over.”

European Council President Donald Tusk: “US strikes show needed resolve against barbaric chemical attacks. EU will work with the US to end brutality in Syria,” he said in a tweet.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel: “This attack by the United States of America is understandable, given the aspect of the war crimes, given the suffering of innocent people and given the logjam in the UN Security Council.”

French President François Hollande, in a joint statement with Merkel, said the two European leaders were given prior notice of the US operation. “Assad is entirely responsible for the development of the situation. His constant use of chemical weapons and his massive crimes must not go unpunished,” the joint statement reads.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg: “The Syrian regime bears the full responsibility for this development. NATO has consistently condemned Syria’s continued use of chemical weapons as a clear breach of international norms and agreements.”