(CNN) — Russia and Syria have condemned the first US military strike against the Syrian regime, launched after a chemical weapons attack that killed dozens of civilians earlier in the week.
The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, denounced the strike on a Syrian airfield as “act of aggression” and said it violated international law. Western leaders gave cautious backing to the US action, saying Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had brought it on himself.
On the orders of President Donald Trump, 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles were launched from US warships in the eastern Mediterranean. The missiles were directed at the Shayrat airfield, believed by the US to be the base for warplanes that carried out the chemical attack on a rebel-held town in Idlib on Tuesday.
Syria said six people were killed in the strike.
Trump said he ordered the operation after Tuesday’s attack on the town of Khan Sheikhoun that killed more than 80 people, including many children. Pictures from the aftermath of the attack, showing dead and injured children, shocked the world.
Western nations blamed the Syrian regime for the attack. But Russia said it did not believe the Syrian government held any chemical weapons.
Putin denounced the US action as “aggression against a sovereign state in violation of the norms of international law under a far-fetched pretext.”
He said the strikes “dealt a serious blow to Russian-US relations” and that their aim was to distract from the civilian deaths from coalition airstrikes in Iraq, a statement from his press office said.
A statement from Syria’s general military command said the strikes caused “extensive material damage” and undermined counterterror operations by the Syrian army. The operation “makes the United States of America a partner of ISIS, Nusra Front and other terrorist organizations who — since the first day of this unjust war on Syria — have been attacking Syrian army positions and Syrian military bases.”
Syrian TV aired footage of the aftermath of the strike that showed smoke still rising up from the base.
The strike was the first direct military action the US has taken against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the country’s six-year civil war and represents a substantial escalation of the US military campaign in the region, which could be interpreted by the Syrian government as an act of war.
Trump: ‘Vital national security’
Trump announced the strikes in a brief statement to reporters at his Mar-a-Lago resort, saying there was “no doubt” that Syria had used chemical weapons in the attack on Khan Sheikhoun on Tuesday. “Years of previous attempts at changing Assad’s behavior have all failed and failed very dramatically,” he said.
The Pentagon said the strike, which took place at 8:40 p.m. ET Thursday (3:40 a.m. local time Friday), targeted aicraft, storage facilities and other logistical materials.
“Initial indications are that this strike has severely damaged or destroyed Syrian aircraft and support infrastructure and equipment at Shayrat Airfield, reducing the Syrian Government’s ability to deliver chemical weapons,” the Pentagon said in a statement.
The strikes were supported by US allies. Turkey, a key regional player and partner in the fight against ISIS, said it considered the US action “a positive response to the Assad regime’s war crimes,” Turkish Presidential Spokesman Ibrahim Kalin said in a statement.
French President François Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel said in a joint statement that they were given prior notice of the US strikes. “Assad is entirely responsible for the development of the situation. His constant use of chemical weapons and his massive crimes must not go unpunished,” they said.
“France and Germany will continue their efforts along with their partners throughout the United Nations framework in order to punish in the most appropriate way the criminal acts related to the use of chemical weapons, that are prohibited by all treaties.”
At the United Nations, diplomats from the United States, United Kingdom and France circulated a new draft resolution against the Syrian government following Tuesday’s chemical attack, but the 15 members of the Security Council failed Thursday night to reach agreement. Russia has repeatedly vetoed past UN Security Council resolutions on Syria.
Matthew Chance, CNN’s senior international correspondent based in Moscow, said the latest strikes “are an immensely dangerous episode in the relationship between Russia and the United States, not least because they potentially bring into contact Russian forces who are on the ground in Syria and the US forces.”
Russia was warned of the attack before it took place. Nevertheless, Chance pointed out, Russia did not choose to use surface-to-air missiles systems in place in Syria that are “fully capable of intercepting cruise missiles if they so choose to” which, he said, “implies a degree of tacit Russian consent to the strikes.”
A NATO official told CNN that NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg “was informed by the US Secretary of Defense prior to the strikes.”