Damascus and its ally Moscow furiously condemned an American air strike on a Syrian airbase Friday that marked the first direct US assault on President Bashar al-Assad’s government.
US allies rallied around Washington after President Donald Trump launched the massive strike in retaliation for a “barbaric” chemical attack he blamed on Assad.
But Assad’s office called the strike “foolish and irresponsible” and Moscow announced a series of retaliatory steps including plans to strengthen Syrian air defences.
Russia also demanded an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council and US diplomats said it was to meet at 11:30 am (1530 GMT) on Friday.
The strike — Trump’s biggest military decision since taking office — marked a dramatic escalation in American involvement in Syria’s six-year civil war.
It followed days of outrage at images of dead children and victims suffering convulsions from the suspected sarin gas attack in the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhun.
US officials said 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles were fired from warships in the Mediterranean at the Shayrat airfield at 3:40 am (0040 GMT), dealing heavy damage to the base from where Washington believes Tuesday’s deadly attack was launched.
Syrian state news agency SANA said nine civilians including four children were killed in villages near the base.
“What America did is nothing but foolish and irresponsible behaviour, which only reveals its short-sightedness and political and military blindness to reality,” Assad’s office said.
– Iran rejects ‘bogus allegations’ –
Damascus has denied using chemical weapons in Khan Sheikhun, where at least 86 people, including 30 children, were reported killed and more than 500 wounded.
With US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson due in Moscow next week, the Kremlin called the US strike a “gross… violation of international law” and warned it would inflict “considerable damage” on US-Russia ties.
It immediately suspended a deal with the United States aimed at avoiding clashes in Syrian airspace.
The Russian military also announced measures “to strengthen and improve the effectiveness of the Syrian armed forces’ air defence system”.
Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif of Iran, another staunch Assad ally, tweeted that the strike was based on “bogus CW (chemical weapons) allegations” and would aid jihadists like the Islamic State group.
Lebanese Shiite movement Hezbollah, which has intervened in Syria on behalf of Assad, condemned what it said was a “vicious” attack on Syria’s sovereignty.
“This foolish move by the Trump administration will be a major, dangerous source of tension in the region and will further complicate the situation around the world.”
Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Israel, Japan, Saudi Arabia and Turkey all supported Washington, with Ankara also calling for a no-fly zone in Syria.
UN envoy Staffan de Mistura announced the UN-backed ceasefire taskforce on Syria that is co-chaired by Moscow and Washington would meet later on Friday at Russia’s request.
Trump announced the strike in a brief televised address delivered hours after the Security Council failed to agree on a probe into the suspected chemical attack.
“Tonight I call on all civilised nations to join us in seeking to end this slaughter and bloodshed in Syria and also to end terrorism of all kinds and all types,” he said.
The missiles were fired from the USS Porter and the USS Ross.
– Opposition wants more strikes –
The strike targeted radars, aircraft, air defence systems and other logistical components at the base south of Homs in central Syria.
In a statement read on state television, the army confirmed the strike and said it had caused extensive damage.
Russia’s military said the strike had an “extremely low” military impact, with fewer than half of the 59 missiles reaching the airbase.
The missiles destroyed six planes under repair and several buildings, including a storage depot and radio station, it said.
A Syrian military source said the armed forces had been warned in advance of the US operation, without specifying by which party.
“We took precautions in more than one military point, including in the Shayrat airbase. We moved a number of airplanes towards other areas,” the official told AFP.
Opposition and rebel fighters, who have for years urged more direct US military action in support of their uprising, hailed the strike and called for more.
The National Coalition, the main opposition grouping, called on Washington to take further steps to “neutralise” the regime’s air power.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a longtime foe of Assad, also called for more action.
“I welcome this concrete step as positive,” said Erdogan.
“I don’t see this as enough… the time has come for steps for a serious result to protect the oppressed Syrian people.”
But the White House was quick to paint the decision as limited to deterring the use of chemical weapons, and not part of a broader military campaign.
“The intent was to deter the regime from doing this again, and it is certainly our hope that this has had that effect,” said Pentagon spokesman Navy Captain Jeff Davis.
– ‘Enough killing and injustice’ –
US officials said Russia’s military in Syria was informed of the strike beforehand in order to avoid casualties that could prompt a broader crisis.
Russia stood by Damascus this week despite the global uproar, insisting the chemical weapons that caused the deaths in Khan Sheikhun had been stockpiled by “terrorists” and possibly released by a conventional strike.
In Khan Sheikhun, a rebel-held town in the northwestern province of Idlib, residents still mourning their dead welcomed the US strike as a way to pressure Damascus.
“God willing, these strikes will be a clear warning to Bashar al-Assad, to tell him: Bashar, enough killing and injustice against these people,” said Abu Ali, a man in his 40s.
The Free Syrian Army and other rebel factions called for more strikes to “prevent the regime from using its airports and internationally-banned weapons against Syrians”.
Trump had previously indicated no willingness to engage further in Syria’s civil war, beyond stepping up efforts to battle the jihadists of IS, who have been targeted by US-led air strikes in Syria and Iraq since mid-2014.
His administration had in fact signalled in recent days it was no longer seeking the Assad’s departure from power.
But Trump said the “very barbaric attack” in which “even beautiful babies were cruelly murdered” had required a response.