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Airstrikes in Syria: What you need to know

April 14, 2018

France, the US and the UK have launched about 100 missiles at weapons facilities in Syria. Here's how it happened, and how the world reacted.

A British Typhoon aircraft
Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/P. Karadjias

The US, France and the UK launched precision airstrikes in Syria during Saturday's pre-dawn hours as a retaliatory measure for the alleged use of chemical weapons by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on civilians in Douma last week.

What do we know about the strikes themselves?

·     The strikes began around 4 a.m. local time (0100 UTC) and reportedly lasted around 45 minutes.

·     The strikes targeted three sites near the capital, Damascus, and Homs that were allegedly used for the research, development production, testing and storage of chemical weapons.

·     US Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis said Saturday's strikes were more intense than the 58 missiles launched last year following a previous alleged chemical attack by the Assad regime. He added that the strikes had not completely toppled Syria's chemical weapons system, but that it had been "dealt a severe blow."

·     From the French side, the strikes involved 12 cruise missiles, fighter jets and warships.

·     British Prime Minister Theresa May described the strikes as "limited and targeted" and said that four fighter jets had fired missiles at the base west of Homs.

·     The three nations reportedly fired around 100 missiles.

A map showing the areas targeted by US, British and French airstrikes

What information about the strikes remains unclear?

·     Russia reported that Syrian air defense systems intercepted around 70 of the missiles that had been fired towards the targets in Syria, but the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joseph Dunford, said he was aware of no initial losses. The Pentagon later stated that "no Syrian weapon had any effect on Western strikes in Syria."

·     Dunford said that the US did not notify Russia of the strikes ahead of time, while French Defense Minister Florence Parly said that the Russians had been warned in advance.

What was the result on the ground?

·     Syrian state media said that three people had been injured, though Russia reported no victims. 

·     France said the strikes had destroyed a "large part" of Damascus' chemical weapons stock.

·     Syrian media reported that several missiles hit a research center north of Damascus and destroyed several buildings.

Where does the evidence on the gas attack stand?

·     The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) was scheduled to begin a fact-finding mission to investigate the claims of gas attacks on civilians in Douma.

·     British Prime Minister Theresa May cited reports that said the Syrian government had used barrel bombs to deploy the chemical weapons.

·     While the French government said it had no samples of the chemical weapons it believes were used, it released its own assessment based on publicly available information that concluded only the Syrian armed forces could have been behind the attack.

·     Syria and its allies, Russia and Iran, have repeatedly called the alleged gas attack in Douma a "fabrication" used to justify military intervention.

What have France, the US and the UK said?
French President Emmanuel Macron said the country's objectives had been met and that no new strikes were planned at this point but promised to retaliate if the red line on chemical weapons was once again crossed. The strikes were his first major military involvement since taking office last year.

President Trump thanked the UK and France for their "wisdom and power," saying the strike could not have "had a better result." He was maligned on social media for using the phrase "mission accomplished," which became notorious in 2003 when then-President George W. Bush declared "mission accomplished" two months into what would become an eight-year-long war in Iraq.

Prime Minister May defended the strikes as "right and legal," highlighting that the purpose had been "to alleviate further humanitarian suffering."

Stoltenberg: All NATO allies back Syria airstrikes

Who has supported the strikes?

German Chancellor Angela Merkel expressed support for the airstrikes while maintaining that Germany would not become involved in military action.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said he strongly supported the US, UK and France's airstrikes.

Israel described the strikes as an "important signal" to Iran, Syria and the Iran-backed Hezbollah.

Turkey, which has opposed the Assad regime, called the joint airstrikes an "appropriate response to the chemical attack" in Douma.

Who has criticized them?

Russia resoundingly criticized the airstrikes as a violation of international law and warned that the airstrikes "will not be left without consequences."

"By its actions, the United States is increasingly exacerbating the humanitarian catastrophe in Syria and bringing suffering to civilians," said President Vladimir Putin.

Iran joined Russia in condemning the strikes. The Islamic Republic accused the three attacking nations of having no proof that chemical weapons were used in Douma, saying that the OPCW had not yet been able to probe the events.

For his own part, Assad said in a statement: "Aggression will only make Syria and the Syrian people more determined to continue fighting and pulverizing terrorism in every inch of the country."

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urged all parties in the Syria conflict to show restraint and avoid further military escalation.

What happens now?

·     The OPCW, which had been expected to begin an investigation on Saturday, said in a statement that its fact-finding team "will continue its deployment to the Syrian Arab Republic to establish facts around the allegations of chemical weapons use in Douma."

·     The UK, France and the US will brief NATO allies at a special meeting at the alliance's headquarters in Brussels.

·      US defense chief Mattis said that the strike was a "one-time shot" and that the country would still seek to reduce its military involvement in Syria.

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es,cmb/tj (AP, AFP, Reuters, dpa)

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