On Thursday night, the U.S. Navy destroyers USS Porter and USS Ross launched a Tomahawk missile strike against the Syrian air base at Shayrat, an effort intended to punish the regime of Bashar Al-Assad for its latest use of chemical weapons against civilian targets.
In a statement to the press, President Donald Trump said that he had ordered a “strike on the air field in Syria from where the chemical attack was launched.”
"It is in this vital national security of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons,” he continued. "There can be no dispute that Syria used banned chemical weapons, violated its obligations under the Chemical Weapons Convention and ignored the urging of the UN Security Council. Years of previous attempts at changing Assad's behavior have all failed and failed very dramatically."
An American official told the New York Times that Russian forces on the ground at the Syrian air base were given 60-90 minutes of advance notice of the strike; Russian state outlet Pravda reports that the notice was passed on to Syrian commanders, and both Russian and Syrian personnel were withdrawn from the scene before the missiles hit. In comments to AFP, Syrian officials confirmed that they had received advanced notice of an impending attack, and a source at the scene informed ABC News that Syrian forces had begun evacuating the base before the strike.
The Russian defense ministry asserts that only 23 of 59 Tomahawk missiles launched reached their intended targets. The material damage reportedly included a number of buildings, at least six MiG-23 aircraft and a radar station; U.S. and Russian sources indicate that the runways were not affected. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported Friday that the air base has resumed military operations.
Russian and Syrian forces did not use forward deployed air defense systems to counter the attack. According to Pravda, Russia chose not to activate its advanced Pantsir point air defense system out of the fear of starting a war. "If Syria had used Russian air defense systems in response to the U.S. missile attack, it would have triggered a nuclear conflict," said Sergei Sudakov of the Russian Academy of Military Sciences. "It was only the composure of the Russian commander-in-chief that made it possible to avoid a nuclear conflict."
The strike has escalated longstanding tensions between Russia and the United States over alleged atrocities against civilian targets in the Syrian civil war. On Friday, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson claimed that "Russia has been complicit or Russia has been simply incompetent" in Syria's failure to comply with a 2013 agreement to give up its chemical weapons. Russia broadly denies that Syria either has chemical weapons or has used them in the conflict, and Russian deputy ambassador to the U.N. Vladimir Safronkov protested the retaliatory strike. “We strongly condemn the illegitimate actions by the US. The consequences of this for regional and international stability could be extremely serious," he warned.