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U.N. envoy says Russia, Iran at fault in Syria
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U.N. envoy says Russia, Iran at fault in Syria

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WASHINGTON — The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations says that while the Syrian government is responsible for Tuesday's chemical attack, Iran and Russia bear "heavy responsibility" for propping up and shielding President Bashar Assad.

Nikki Haley told the U.N. Security Council Friday that Russia is supposed to be a guarantor that all chemical weapons were removed from Syria under a 2013 agreement.

Haley says it could be that Russia knowingly allowed chemical weapons to remain, or that it was "incompetent" in their removal. She says: "Or it could be that the Assad regime is playing the Russians for fools, telling them that there are no chemical weapons, all the while stockpiling them on their bases."

Haley says: "The world is waiting for Russia to act responsibly in Syria."

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1:30 p.m.

The White House says the U.S. response to suspected chemical attacks by the Syrian government was "justified and proportional."

Press Secretary Sean Spicer told reporters in Palm Beach, Florida, on Friday that the attacks on a Syrian air base late Thursday were the result of a "72-hour evolution."

Dozens of innocent people were killed in the suspected chemical attack Tuesday. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Thursday that the U.S. feels confident Syrian President Bashar Assad's government was behind the attack and that sarin gas was apparently used.

Spicer says Trump was offered a variety of options of a U.S. response from his Cabinet and members of his national security team. He gave the green light on the missile strike ahead of dinner with China's President Xi Jinping (shee jihn-peeng).

Spicer says Trump told Xi about the attack during their dinner Thursday night.

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1:20 p.m.

Russia is calling on the United States "to immediately cease its aggression" and join efforts to bring peace to Syria and "work together to combat the terrorist threat."

Russia's deputy U.N. ambassador, Vladimir Safronkov, strongly criticized what he called the U.S. "flagrant violation of international law and an act of aggression" whose "consequences for regional and international security could be extremely serious."

He said Russia firmly stands by the Syrian government, calling it the main force against terrorism and saying it deserves the presumption of innocence in the chemical weapons attack.

But Safronkov offered a way ahead for the Trump administration — stop attacks, pursue a political settlement, and work jointly to combat "the terrorist threat."

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12:40 p.m.

Senior military officials say the U.S. is looking into whether Russia participated in Syria's chemical weapons attack earlier this week.

The officials say Russia has failed to control the Syrian government's use of chemical weapons.

They say a drone belonging either to Russia or Syria was seen hovering over the site of the chemical weapons attack Tuesday after it happened. The drone returned late in the day as citizens were going to a nearby hospital for treatment. Shortly afterward, officials say the hospital was bombed.

The officials say they believe the hospital attack may have been an effort to cover up evidence of the attack.

The officials weren't authorized to speak publicly on the matter and demanded anonymity. They say they're still reviewing evidence.

—Lolita C. Baldor

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12:30 p.m.

Britain's ambassador to the U.N. is stressing his country's strong support for the U.S. air strikes on Syria and harshly repudiating Russia for its protection of Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime.

Matthew Rycroft demanded that Russia "abandon its failed strategy," end its "protection of a war criminal," and join Western powers seeking to impose sanctions on Assad's regime.

He said, "Russia sits here today humiliated by its failure to bring to bear a puppet dictator entirely propped up by Russia."

Rycroft said Assad showed in the chemical weapons attack on the town of Khan Sheikhoun "that he is capable of redefining horror."

He said the United Kingdom will work in the U.N. Security Council to ensure that those responsible are brought to justice.

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12:10 p.m.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (SHEEN-zoh AH-bay) says his government supports "the resolve of the U.S. government of never tolerating the proliferation and use of chemical weapons."

Abe is a close U.S. ally. He says chemical weapons have again taken the lives of many innocent people in Syria and the international community has been shocked by the tragedy.

In a statement issued Friday after the U.S. missile strike on Syria, Abe said Japan understands the U.S. action was intended to prevent "further worsening of the situation."

Abe added that the threat of weapons of mass destruction is becoming increasingly serious in East Asia as well — an apparent reference to North Korea, a neighbor of Japan. He said Japan praises Trump's commitment to "maintaining international order."

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6:30 a.m.

Top European Union officials are supporting the U.S. missile strikes on military targets in Syria as a means of deterring further chemical weapons attacks by Damascus.

EU Council President Donald Tusk said in a tweet Friday that the "U.S. strikes show needed resolve against barbaric chemical attacks. EU will work with the US to end brutality in Syria."

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said in a statement that he "understands efforts to deter further attacks."

He said "there is a clear distinction between air strikes on military targets and the use of chemical weapons against civilians."

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6:00 a.m.

NATO's chief says Syrian President Bashar Assad only has himself to blame for a U.S. missile strike launched in retaliation for a chemical weapons attack in Syria that killed dozens of people.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said Friday that "the Syrian regime bears the full responsibility for this development."

He said that the U.S.-led military alliance "has consistently condemned Syria's continued use of chemical weapons as a clear breach of international norms and agreements."

Stoltenberg said that "any use of chemical weapons is unacceptable, cannot go unanswered, and those responsible must be held accountable."


Updated at 10:10 a.m.

IRBIL, Iraq — Syrian officials early Friday denounced a U.S. missile strike on one of the country’s air bases in retaliation for a poison gas attack, calling it a “blatant aggression” that killed and wounded several, and caused “significant material damage.”

“This condemned American aggression confirms the continuation of the wrong American strategy and restricts the counter-terrorist operation that the Syrian army is conducting,” the General Command of the Syrian Army said in a statement.

Russia joined in condemning the U.S. strike, with President Vladimir Putin calling it “an aggression against a sovereign state in violation of the norms of international law” executed “under a trumped-up pretext,” according to Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov.

Early Friday, Russia’s Defense Ministry said the “combat effectiveness” of the airstrike was “very low,” according to its spokesman, Maj. Gen. Ignorances Konashenkov.

Of the 59 missiles dispatched by the U.S. on the Shayrat air base, Konashenkov said, only 23 missiles hit their target.

“The place of the fall of the other missiles is unknown,” said Konashenkov, according to a report by Russian state news operator TASS. He added that the Syrian army’s air defense systems would be reinforced in the near future to “protect the most important infrastructure facilities.”

“It is nakedly clear that the attack on a Syrian air base with U.S. cruise missiles had been planned well beforehand.”

The Russian Foreign Ministry said it was suspending an agreement with the U.S. to prevent incidents and ensure flight safety during military operations in Syria.

Under the memorandum, signed when Russia launched its air campaign in Syria in 2015, Russia and the U.S. had exchanged information about planned flights to avoid conflicts during the thousands of airstrikes that have been conducted.

“Russia suspends the memorandum on the prevention of incidents and ensuring air safety during operations in Syria reached with the U.S.,” the Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

The Syrian army command said Friday’s missile attack on the air base northeast of Damascus made the U.S. “a partner of Daesh, Nusra and other terrorist organizations.”

Daesh is a common acronym for the militant group Islamic State, and the Nusra Front is a former Al Qaeda affiliate in the region, now known as the Organization for the Liberation of Syria. Both are listed as terrorist entities by the U.S.

About 60 U.S. Tomahawk missiles were used in the predawn strike on the base, which is used by aircraft striking targets in central Syria.

Talal Barazi, the governor of Syria’s Homs province, told Al Arabiya TV that a fire raged for two hours at the Shayrat air base, near the city of Homs, before firefighters put it out.

Barazi told Manar, a Lebanese channel that is close to staunch Assad ally Hezbollah, that seven people had been killed and nine others wounded.

A correspondent with state news operator SANA, quoting local sources, said that nine civilians had been killed, including four children in villages surrounding the base.

President Trump ordered the attack in retaliation for an apparent poison gas attack Tuesday that killed up to 70 people in the northern town of Khan Sheikhoun, about 60 miles from the Syrian border in Idlib province, an opposition stronghold.

Turkish experts found evidence that civilians were targeted with chlorine and possibly sarin, a toxic nerve agent.

Peskov said the U.S. strike was an effort to divert attention from recent civilian casualties caused by U.S.-led coalition airstrikes in Iraq, and predicted the latest U.S. attack would worsen the conflict in Syria.

“The Syrian army has no reserves of chemical weapons. The fact of destruction of all the reserves of Syria’s chemical weapons has been documented and confirmed,” Peskov told reporters in a conference call.

Russian officials said military operations in Syria can be conducted only under the authorization of the Syrian government and the United Nations Security Council.

“Fighting terrorism in the Middle East and North Africa requires coordinated efforts of the international community under the auspices of the United Nations,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement. “Attempts to pursue geopolitical objectives and violations of the sovereignty of states in the region can only aggravate tensions and further serve to destabilize the situation.”

Speaking at a news conference in Palm Beach, Fla., where Trump is meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Russia had “failed” in its responsibility to deliver on a commitment to secure Syria’s chemical weapons.

Tillerson briefed reporters shortly after the U.S. launched the cruise missiles, saying Russia had either been complicit or “simply incompetent” in failing to deliver on a 2013 agreement to remove Syria’s chemical weapons following an earlier chemical weapons attack in the Damascus suburbs that killed hundreds.

The Obama administration had threatened to attack Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces after that incident, but never launched a strike.

Amar Salmo, a civil defense volunteer in northern Syria, welcomed the new U.S. intervention.

“For Syrians, any military intervention that will neutralize Assad’s ability to continue his genocide will fall on our hearts like music,” Salmo said by phone Friday. “If there will not be a cost for Assad after using chemical weapons, it will be a clear signal for him to continue his genocide, killing the innocent.”

An opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition, also praised the U.S. missile strike, saying it puts an end to an age of “impunity” and should be just the beginning.

“We welcome these strikes,” Najib Ghadbian, special representative to the U.S. and the U.N. for the Syrian National Coalition, told the Al Jazeera news service.

“They are first good steps, but we would like them to be part of a bigger strategy that would put an end to the mass killing, an end to impunity, and eventually we hope that they will lead to a kind of a political transition in Syria,” he said.

Syrian human rights advocates said they hoped the attack signaled the start of a broader U.S. campaign against Assad.

Neighboring Turkey also welcomed the U.S. military move. Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmas told the Daily Sabah that he hoped the strike would ultimately help bring peace to the region.

“The barbarism of the Assad regime must be stopped as soon as possible,” Kurtulmus said.

***

The bombing was Trump’s most significant military order since taking office 11 weeks ago.

Before the strike, Trump said the Khan Sheikhoun chemical weapons attack crossed “many, many lines” He blamed Assad’s forces, saying it “shouldn’t have happened, and it shouldn’t be allowed to happen.”

U.S. officials had hoped for a vote late Thursday on a U.N. Security Council resolution they and allies had drafted, condemning the chemical attack, but council members postponed the vote after delays negotiating the wording with Russian diplomats.

Syrian officials have insisted that they did not use chemical weapons and that it was opposition fighters who stockpiled the chemicals.

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem told reporters that a government airstrike hit a rebel chemical weapons arsenal and munitions factory near Khan Sheikhoun that day, noting militant groups have continued to store chemical weapons in urban areas.

“The Syrian Arab Army did not and will not use such weapons even against the terrorists who are targeting our people,” Moallem said at a Thursday briefing in Damascus, adding that “we condemn such a criminal act.”

Russia’s Defense Ministry also said the toxic agents were released when a Syrian airstrike hit a rebel arsenal outside Khan Sheikhoun.

———

(Hennessy-Fiske reported from Irbil and Bulos from Beirut. Special correspondent Mansur Mirovalev contributed from Moscow.)

———

©2017 Los Angeles Times

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.


Updated at 9:29 a.m.

BEIRUT — The U.S. military says 58 of the 59 missiles struck their intended targets in the strike on a Syrian air base.

A U.S. official says the initial assessment suggests one of the missiles malfunctioned. The official says the missiles hit multiple aircraft and hardened aircraft shelters and destroyed the fuel area.

The official says information is still coming in from the site of the strike.

The official is not authorized to discuss initial reports and spoke on condition of anonymity.


Updated at 8:15 a.m.

BEIRUT — The Kremlin says the presidential Security Council has voiced regret over the damage to U.S.-Russia ties inflicted by the U.S. strike on a Syrian air base.

The Kremlin said in a statement carried by Russian news agencies that the senior Russian officials who attended Friday's meeting described the U.S. action as an "act of aggression in violation of international law."

It added that the meeting's participants discussed "various issues related to the continuation of Russian air force operations in support of the Syrian army's anti-terror actions."

The Kremlin said those who spoke at the meeting voiced a "deep concern over inevitable negative consequences of such aggressive actions for joint efforts to fight terrorism."


PALM BEACH, Fla. — The United States blasted a Syrian air base with a barrage of cruise missiles Thursday night in fiery retaliation for this week's gruesome chemical weapons attack against civilians. President Donald Trump cast the U.S. assault as vital to deter future use of poison gas and called on other nations to join in seeking "to end the slaughter and bloodshed in Syria."

It was the first direct American assault on the Syrian government and Trump's most dramatic military order since becoming president just over two months ago. The strikes also risk thrusting the U.S. deeper into an intractable conflict that his predecessor spent years trying to avoid.

Announcing the assault from his Florida resort, Trump said there was no doubt Syrian President Bashar Assad was responsible for the chemical attack, which he said employed banned gases and killed dozens.

"Assad choked out the lives of helpless men, women and children," Trumped declared.

The U.S. strikes — some 59 missiles launched from the USS Ross and USS Porter — hit the government-controlled Shayrat air base in central Syria, where U.S. officials say the Syrian military planes that dropped the chemicals had taken off. The U.S. missiles hit at 8:45 p.m. in Washington, 3:45 Friday morning in Syria. The missiles targeted the base's airstrips, hangars, control tower and ammunition areas, officials said.

Trump approved the strikes without approval from Congress or the backing of the United Nations. The White House said about two dozen lawmakers from both parties were briefed on the actions.

Syrian state TV reported a U.S. missile attack on a number of military targets and called the attack an "aggression."

The U.S. assault marked a striking reversal for Trump, who warned as a candidate against the U.S. being pulled into the Syrian civil war that began six years ago. But the president appeared moved by the photos of children killed in the chemical attack, calling it a "disgrace to humanity" that crossed "a lot of lines."

U.S. officials placed some of the blame on Russia, one of Syria's most important benefactors. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, in Florida with Trump, said Moscow had failed in living up to a 2013 agreement that was intended to strip Syria of its chemical weapons stockpiles.

"Either Russia has been complicit or Russia has been simply incompetent in its ability to deliver on its end of the agreement," Tillerson said.

About 60 U.S. Tomahawk missiles, fired from warships in the Mediterranean Sea, targeted an air base in retaliation for the attack that America believes Syrian government aircraft launched with the nerve agent sarin mixed with chlorine gas. The president did not announce the attacks in advance, though he and other national security officials ratcheted up their warnings to the Syrian government throughout the day Thursday.

The strike came as Trump was hosting Xi in meetings focused in part on another pressing U.S. security dilemma: North Korea's nuclear program. Trump's actions in Syria could signal to China that the new president isn't afraid of unilateral military steps, even if key nations like China are standing in the way.

"This clearly indicates the president is willing to take decisive action when called for," Tillerson said.

Trump has advocated greater counterterrorism cooperation with Russia, Assad's most powerful military backer. Just last week, the Trump administration signaled the U.S. was no longer interested in trying to push Assad from power over his direction of a conflict that has killed hundreds of thousands of people and led to the worst refugee crisis since World War II.

U.S. officials portrayed the strikes as an appropriate, measured response and said they did not signal a broader shift in the Trump administration's approach to the Syrian conflict.

Still, the assault risks plunging America into the middle of Syria's conflict, complicating the safety of the hundreds of U.S. forces fighting a separate campaign against the Islamic State group in the north of the country. If Assad's military persists in further gas attacks, the Trump administration might logically pursue increased retaliation.

Russia and Iran, Assad's allies, pose other problems. Russian military personnel and aircraft are embedded with Syria's, and Iranian troops and paramilitary forces are also on the ground helping Assad fight the array of opposition groups hoping to topple him.

Before the strikes, U.S. military officials said they informed their Russian counterparts of the impending attack. The goal was to avoid any accident involving Russian forces.

Nevertheless, Russia's Deputy U.N. ambassador Vladimir Safronkov warned that any negative consequences from the strikes would be on the "shoulders of those who initiated such a doubtful and tragic enterprise."

The U.S. also notified its partner countries in the region prior to launching the strikes.

Trump's decision to attack Syria came three-and-a-half years after President Barack Obama threatened Assad with military action after an earlier chemical weapons attack killed hundreds outside Damascus. Obama had declared the use of such weapons a "red line." At the time, several American ships in the Mediterranean were poised to launch missiles, only for Obama to abruptly pull back after key U.S. ally Britain and the U.S. Congress balked at his plan.

He opted instead for the Russian-backed plan that was supposed to remove and eliminate Syria's chemical weapons stockpiles.

The world learned of the chemical attack earlier in the week in footage that showed people dying in the streets and bodies of children stacked in piles. The international outcry fueled an emotional response from Trump, who appeared to abandon his much-touted "America First" vision for a stance of humanitarian intervention, akin to that of previous American leaders. "I think what happened in Syria is a disgrace to humanity," he said Thursday.

Trump seemed to rapidly reconsider his feelings about Assad, saying: "He's there and I guess he's running things, so something should happen."

The show of force in Syria raises legal questions. It's unclear what authority Trump is relying on to attack another government. When Obama intervened in Libya in 2011, he used a U.N. Security Council mandate and NATO's overall leadership of the mission to argue that he had legal authority — arguments that many Republicans opposed. Trump can't rely on either justification here.

Unclear also is whether Trump is adopting any broader effort to combat Assad. Under Obama, the United States largely pulled back from its support for so-called "moderate" rebels when Russia's military intervention in September 2015 led them to suffer a series of battlefield defeats. Instead, Obama sought to work with Russia on a negotiated transition.

Trump and his top aides had acknowledged in recent days the "reality" of Assad being in power, saying his ouster was no longer a priority. But the chemical weapons attack seemed to spur a rethink. In Florida on Thursday, Tillerson said of Assad: "There's no role for him to govern the Syrian people."

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