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Western allies applaud strike on Syria amid questions of next steps

April 7, 2017 at 6:50 PM EDT
President Trump ordered a U.S. military strike Thursday night in Syria. The target: the Assad military’s Sharyat air base, which U.S. officials say acted as a launch pad for a chemical attack that killed more than 80 people. The attack drew widespread support from American allies, and condemnation from the Syrians and their allies. Judy Woodruff reports.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: The White House says President Trump has sent a strong signal to the world with last night’s cruise missile strike on Syria. The attack drew widespread support today from American allies, and condemnation from the Syrians and their allies.

A flash of light and the roar of jet engines lit up the predawn in the eastern Mediterranean. Two U.S. Navy destroyers fired off 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles. Amateur video broadcast on Syrian state TV appeared to show the missiles striking home, the target, the Syrian military’s Shayrat air base.

U.S. officials say it was the launching pad for a chemical attack that killed more than 80 people in Idlib province.

Saleh Hawa, an opposition activist in Idlib, spoke to us via Skype.

SALEH HAWA, Syrian Opposition Activist: There is a kind of comfort among people that, at the end, after — maybe after seven years of suffering and pain, at the end, we have got a kind of ally. We have got a kind of protector, you can say.

JUDY WOODRUFF: News of the U.S. missile strike broke as President Trump was meeting last night at his resort in Florida with the president of China.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: It is in this vital national security interest of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Both Russia and Syria claim rebel groups were responsible for Tuesday’s chemical attack, and the Russians quickly condemned the U.S. missile strike.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov spoke in Uzbekistan.

SERGEI LAVROV, Russian Foreign Minister (through interpreter): Of course this is an act of aggression, committed on an absolutely made-up pretext. I hope these provocations will not lead to some kind of irreversible consequences.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The Russian Defense Ministry announced that the U.S. attack caused only minimal damage to the Syrian air base, and that most of the cruise missiles fell short. Indeed, opposition activists reported seeing Syrian jets take off from the base today, heading for rebel-held areas.

But White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said all 59 missiles hit their targets, from fighter jets to radar sites. Meanwhile, Western allies backed the U.S. move. In a statement, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said: “The Syrian regime bears the full responsibility for this development.”

German Chancellor Angela Merkel also defended the U.S. action, but urged caution.

ANGELA MERKEL, German Chancellor (through interpreter): The attack of the United States is understandable, given the dimension of the war crimes. At the same time, and I underline, more and more, it remains important and right to focus all the attention on political talks.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the missile strike was fully warranted, but may not be enough. And Syrian rebel groups also called for even stronger action against the Assad regime.

Again, Saleh Hawa:

SALEH HAWA: Right now, things are different. I think, from now on, Russian and Bashar al-Assad and Iran and all those, you know, naughty countries around the world will understand that, look, this is America. America today is different from before. America is now ready to act.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The strike was in stark contrast to President Obama’s policy. He had warned of a red line against the use of chemical weapons, but backed away from military action after a chemical attack in August 2013 killed more than 1,000 Syrians.

During the campaign, Mr. Trump also advocated against military intervention in Syria. This week, he said the chemical attack changed his view of the Syrian war and of Assad.

Mr. Trump had nothing to further add today, but at a U.N. Security Council meeting, U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley didn’t rule out further action.

NIKKI HALEY, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations: The United States took a very measured step last night. We are prepared to do more, but we hope that will not be necessary.

JUDY WOODRUFF: On the diplomatic front, the issue is likely to top the agenda, as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visits Moscow next Wednesday.

In Congress, Democrats urged the president to seek congressional approval for future moves, while Republicans generally applauded his action.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN, R-Ariz.: This was a response that was required in response to the commission of war crimes. I want to emphasize, this is the beginning, not the end. But the signal that was sent around the world is very important.

SEN. EDWARD MARKEY, D-Mass.: The president has made a 180-degree pivot in one week on what the United States’ role should be in Syria. And I think that, as a result, the United States Congress should be fully involved.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We will get a deeper assessment of the U.S. strike, and its implications, right after the news summary.

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