The al-Shayrat air base has been central to the Syrian war and to persistent claims of chemical weapons use. It is one of Bashar al-Assad’s main military institutions and has housed allies including Russian troops, Hezbollah and Iraqi militias throughout the war.
Sources in Lebanon who are allied to the regime said senior officers evacuated the base before the airstrikes happened and some commanders were attempting to move their families to the Lebanese capital.
The US strike had been increasingly anticipated from late on Thursday until early Friday morning, when 59 precision guided missiles were launched from two US destroyers in the Mediterranean.
Russia has retained a presence at al-Shayrat, although its most significant force is located at a purpose-built base close to Latakia.
There was no immediate response from Hezbollah, whose forces have been central to turning the tide of the war in Assad’s favour over the past two years, most recently in Hama, where they have helped rebuff an assault near Syria’s fourth city led by jihadists and opposition groups.
Russia has established a comprehensive ground-radar bubble over much of northern Syria, which would have been capable of detecting incoming threats, such as the pre-dawn barrage of missiles.
Before the war, al-Shayrat was one of Assad’s strategic bases. Located near where large stores of sarin were kept in bunkers, it has maintained that role even as most of the stockpiles were surrendered in late 2013. Since then, there have been several claims of sarin use and extensive claims that chlorine has been strapped to war planes and helicopters and dropped on opposition fighters and communities.
Associated Press cites Talal Barazi, governor of Homs province, where al-Shayrat airbase is located, saying there have been deaths as a result of the strikes.
At the moment, there are no further details.
Pentagon spokesman Captain Jeff Davis said the Russians were informed in “multiple conversations” on Thursday, through the “deconfliction channel” – a communications channel to the Russian base at Latakia used to avoid collisions or exchanges of fire between US and allied planes and Russian planes.
“There are Russians at the base and we took extraordinary precautions to not target the area where the Russians are,” he said.
The US defense department has released images of its two guided-missile destroyers, USS Porter and USS Ross, stationed in the Mediterranean, unleashing the missile strike on Syria.
AP reports that the Syrian Coalition, an opposition group, has welcomed the US attack, saying it puts an end to an age of “impunity” and should be just the beginning.
Major Jamil al-Saleh, a US-backed rebel commander whose Hama district was struck by a suspected chemical weapons attack, said he hoped the US attack on a government air base would be a “turning point” in the six-year war.
Talal Barazi, governor of Syria’s Homs province, where al-Shayrat airbase is located, has told state TV that such strikes serve the purpose of terrorists, Reuters reports:
Syrian leadership and Syrian policy will not change. This targeting was not the first and I don’t believe it will be the last …
The armed terrorist groups and Daesh [Isis] failed to target the Syrian Arab Army and Russian military positions.
The US strikes “targeted military positions in Syria and in Homs specifically” in order to “serve the goals of terrorism in Syria and the goals of Israel in the long run”, Barazi said. (The Syrian government describes all armed groups opposed to it as terrorists.)
Barazi said there are not thought to be “big human casualties” at the airbase, though there is material damage as a result of the strikes. He said firefighting and rescue operations had been continuing for more than two hours.
And he insisted that the airbase – which the US said was the site from which the sarin nerve gas attack on Khan Sheikhun was launched – was used to support Syrian regime operations against Isis.
Secretary of state Rex Tillerson has insisted that the missile strikes – despite the sharp shift they represent from the previous stance taken by the Trump administration – are not in fact a change in US policy towards Syria:
This clearly indicates the president is willing to take decisive action when called for.
I would not in any way attempt to extrapolate that to a change in our policy or posture relative to our military activities in Syria today. There has been no change in that status.
I think it does demonstrate that President Trump is willing to act when governments and actors cross the line and cross the line on violating commitments they’ve made and cross the line in the most heinous of ways.
The Pentagon said 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles were launched from warships USS Ross and Porter in the eastern Mediterranean on Thursday at 8.45ET (Friday 3.45am Syria).
Donald Trump said the strike was a direct response to the chemical weapons attack that killed more than 70 people: “Tonight I ordered a targeted military strike on the airfield in Syria from where the chemical attack was launched”.
It is in this vital national security interest of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons.
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 behaviour have all failed and failed very dramatically.
US secretary of state Rex Tillerson said Russia bore responsibility for its handling of the 2013 deal that was supposed to remove Assad’s chemical weapons stockpile.
They would act as the guarantor that these weapons would no longer be present in Syria. Clearly Russia has failed in its responsibility to deliver on that commitment from 2013.
Either Russia has been complicit or Russia has been simply incompetent in its ability to deliver on its end of that agreement.
Tillerson said there had been “no discussions” with Moscow before or since the strike.
But the Pentagon confirmed that Russia – a key Assad ally – had been informed in advance of the strike through military channels:
Russian forces were notified in advance of the strike using the established deconfliction line.
The Pentagon also said it believes the strike has “severely damaged or destroyed Syrian aircraft and support infrastructure”.
Contradicting information from the Pentagon – which said “Russian forces were notified in advance of the strike using the established deconfliction line” – secretary of state Rex Tillerson told reporters that Russia had not been alerted:
There were no discussions or prior contacts, nor had there been any since the attack with Moscow.
The contradiction could be explained if Tillerson is referring to political channels, and the Pentagon military ones.