The United Kingdom, United States and France have launched “precision strikes” in Syria in response to a suspected chemical weapons attack in the country.
The strikes, launched at 2am UK time, targeted Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons capabilities after a weekend poison gas attack that killed at least 75 people on April 7.
Prime Minister Theresa May said there was “no practicable alternative to the use of force” to deter the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime.
Adding that “every possible diplomatic channel” had been sought before the decision to launch targeted strikes had been taken, she said: “This persistent pattern of behaviour must be stopped – not just to protect innocent people in Syria from the horrific deaths and casualties caused by chemical weapons but also because we cannot allow the erosion of the international norm that prevents the use of these weapons.
“This is not about intervening in a civil war. It is not about regime change.
“It is about a limited and targeted strike that does not further escalate tensions in the region and that does everything possible to prevent civilian casualties.”
Donald Trump addressed the United States on Friday evening to say he had ordered “precision strikes” on Syria .
The President spoke live from the White House to confirm the air strikes were “underway” in a combined operation with the UK and France.
He said: “This evil and despicable act left mothers and fathers and children thrashing in pain and gasping for air.
“The combined American, British and French response will integrate all instruments of our national power.
He said: “A short time ago, I ordered the United States Armed Forces to launch precision strikes on targets associated with the chemical weapons capabilities of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.”
French president Emmanuel Macron said there was no doubt the Syrian regime was responsible for the chemical attack in Douma.
He said: “We cannot tolerate the trivialisation of the use of chemical weapons, which represent an immediate danger for the Syrian people and for our collective security.
“The red line set by France in May 2017 has been crossed.”
Four Royal Air Force Tornados GR4s joined the strikes against Syria, launching Storm Shadow missiles at a base 15 miles west of Homs.
The Tornado is UK’s primary ground attack jet and has been used to carry out numerous air strikes in Syria and Iraq in recent years.
Set to be retired from service next year after almost four decades on operations, the Tornado, with a maximum speed of Mach 1.3, has also seen action in Libya and Afghanistan.
The main Tornado squadrons are based at RAF Marham in Norfolk, which will become the new home of the cutting-edge of the F-35 Lightning stealth fighter jets.
There are currently six of the jets based at RAF Akrotiri, Cyprus, a location some 315 miles (510km) from Syria.
Storm Shadow cruise missiles
Described as a “long-range deep-strike weapon” by MBDA systems, which produces the missile, the company states on its website that it is “designed to meet the demanding requirements of pre-planned attacks against high-value fixed or stationary targets”.
Weighing in at 2,866lb (1,300kg), measuring 16.7ft (5.1m) in length and with a range in excess of 150 miles (240km), it is operated from Tornado jets and in future will be carried on Eurofighter Typhoons.
The long-range air-to-surface missile, designed as a “bunker buster”, can be used to penetrate underground facilities.
It was first brought into service in 2003 and has previously been described by the RAF as “arguably the most advanced weapon of its kind in the world”.
The MoD said the regime was “assessed to keep chemical weapon precursors stockpiled in breach of Syria’s obligations under the Chemical Weapons Convention” at the site.
Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson said: “The reprehensible use of chemical weapons in Douma is further evidence of the Syrian regime’s appalling cruelty against its own people.
“We will not stand by whilst innocent civilians, including women and children, are killed and made to suffer.
“The international community has responded decisively with legal and proportionate military force.
“Let these united actions send a clear message to the regime – the use of chemical weapons is categorically unacceptable and you will be held to account.”
French Rafale warplanes also joined the strike. Macron tweeted a video of the jets taking off en route to Syria.
The attack hit scientific research facility in Damascus and Syrian army depots in the Homs area, state media said.
A Reuters witness said the Syrian capital was rocked by explosions as smoke rose into the sky.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said a second research facility was also struck in Damascus, in addition to a third in the Homs area.
Five military bases and depots used by elite army divisions in the Mezzeh area of Damascus were also hit.
A senior official in the regional alliance that supports President Bashar al-Assad said the attack by the United States, Britain and France would be viewed as contained if it was now over. “If it is finished, and there is no second round, it will be considered limited,” the official told Reuters.
Syrian state TV said air defences were confronting the attack and had shot down 13 missiles in the Kiswah area south of Damascus.
It said a pro-Damascus “anti-terror axis” was confronting the attack, language suggesting that Assad’s ally Russia may be helping to fend off the assault.
A pro-Assad official said the attack would be viewed as contained if it was now over.
“If it is finished, and there is no second round, it will be considered limited,” the official told Reuters.
State TV described the attack as a “flagrant violation” of international law.
The next step
US Defense Secretary Mattis said there are no plans for further attacks.
General Joseph Dunford said the strike had inflicted maximum damage without unnecessary risk to civilians.
Asked if the US and its allies would continue military operations, he said: “That will depend on Mr Assad should he decide to use more chemical weapons in the future, and of course the powers that have signed the Chemical Weapons Prohibition (Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons) have every reason to challenge Assad should he choose to violate that.
“But right now this is a one-time shot and I believe that it sent a very strong message to dissuade him, to deter him from doing this again.”
Mr Mattis said the US remained in “close consultation” with its allies, adding: “We review the evidence all the time. But right now we have no additional attacks planned.”