Military officials said 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles had hit Al Shayrat airfield in Syria. The missiles were aimed at Syrian fighter jets and other infrastructure but did not target anything that may have had chemical weapons.
“Russian forces were notified in advance of the strike using the established deconfliction line,” said Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman. “Military planners took precautions to minimize risk to Russian or Syrian personnel located at the airfield.”
“We are assessing the results of the strike,” Captain Davis added. “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 use of chemical weapons against innocent people will not be tolerated.”
The cruise missiles struck the airfield beginning around 8:30 p.m. Eastern Time on Thursday, and the strikes continued for three to four minutes.
According to Captain Davis, the missiles were fired from the destroyers Porter and Ross in the eastern Mediterranean.
The targets, he said, included “hardened aircraft shelters, petroleum and logistical storage, ammunition supply bunkers, air defense systems and radars.”
A military official said the cruise missile strike was at the more limited end of the military options presented to Mr. Trump on Thursday by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. The official said the strike was intended to send a message to Mr. Assad about the United States’ intention to use military force if he continues to use chemical weapons.
It was the first time the White House had ordered military action against forces loyal to Mr. Assad.
The speed with which the Trump administration responded — and remarks earlier in the day by American officials who said that options were still being considered — appeared intended to maximize the element of surprise, and contrasted sharply with the Obama administration’s methodical scrutiny of the use of force.
It was Mr. Trump’s first order to the military for the use of force — other operations in Syria, Yemen and Iraq had been carried out under authorization delegated to his commanders — and it appeared intended to send a message to North Korea, Iran and other potential adversaries that the new commander in chief was prepared to act, sometimes on short notice.
The airstrikes were carried out less than an hour after the president concluded a dinner with Xi Jinping, the president of China, at Mar-a-Lago, sending an unmistakably aggressive signal about Mr. Trump’s willingness to use the military power at his disposal.
Mr. Trump authorized the strike with no congressional approval for the use of force, an assertion of presidential authority that contrasts sharply with the protracted deliberations over the use of force by his predecessor, Barack Obama.
Unlike Mr. Obama, who weighed — and ultimately rejected — a similar strike after Syria used chemical weapons in 2013, Mr. Trump moved with remarkable speed, acting barely 72 hours after the devastating chemical attack on Tuesday.
Two Republican senators, John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, praised the strike in a statement and called for Mr. Trump to go further: to “take Assad’s air force — which is responsible not just for the latest chemical weapons attack, but countless atrocities against the Syrian people — completely out of the fight.”
Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson is scheduled to arrive in Moscow on Tuesday. Administration officials said the strike was intended to put Mr. Tillerson in a position to tell the Russians that they should use their leverage to ensure that Mr. Assad’s government does not carry out more chemical weapon strikes and to facilitate a diplomatic resolution to the civil war in Syria.
It was a dramatic turnabout for Mr. Trump, who until this week had displayed virtually no interest in a deeper role for the United States in the brutal civil war. Well before he became a presidential candidate, Mr. Trump pleaded with Mr. Obama in 2013 to avoid the kind of strike that he has now ordered.
As recently as this week, before seeing images of dying children gasping for breath during the chemical attack, Mr. Trump and his top aides hardly appeared inclined to more forcefully assert American power in the country. But the change in Mr. Trump seemed to emerge during a Rose Garden news conference Wednesday afternoon, as he reacted to news, and images, of the attack with horror and a newfound desire to respond.
In less than 24 hours, his shift was reflected at the Pentagon, where senior Defense Department and military officials began drafting options for Mr. Trump, and in Florida, where Mr. Tillerson hinted at a strong response to Mr. Assad’s actions.
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