Briefing reporters late Thursday night, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that the strike did not represent a “change in our policy or our posture in Syria,” even though the Thursday night strike marked the first time the US had decided to take military action against the Syrian government.
“There has been no change in that status,” he said. “It does demonstrate that President Trump is willing to act when governments and actors cross the line … and cross the line in the most heinous of ways.”
Tillerson said the administration felt the strike was “proportional because it was targeted at the facility that delivered this most recent chemical attack.”
The US military also showed reporters Thursday night an image of the radar track of a Syrian airplane leaving the airfield and flying to the chemical strike area Tuesday. A second image of bomb damage craters at the airbase was also shown to reporters at the Pentagon.
Tillerson said the US has a “very high level of confidence” that the Syrian regime carried out at least three attacks in recent weeks — including on Tuesday — using Sarin and nerve gas.
The strikes represented not only an escalation of the US role in Syria, but could have a ripple effect on the US’ relations with the Syrian regime’s powerful backer, Russia.
Russians were present at the base the US struck Thursday night, a US defense official said, though the role of those Russians was not immediately known.
Tillerson confirmed that the US military contacted their Russian counterparts about the attack ahead of time, in accordance with deconfliction policies between the US and Russia over military activities in Syria.
Russian officials said the strike will undermine the war on terror and warned they may halt cooperation with US forces.
“Russia will demand an urgent UN Security Council meeting after the US airstrike on a Syrian aviation base,” said Viktor Ozerov, head of the Russian Federation Council’s defense committee, according to state news agency RIA.
“This is an act of aggression against a UN member,” Ozerov said. “Cooperation between the Russian and US militaries may be shut down after the US strike.”
Lawmakers generally supported
Trump’s decision to strike back against Assad Thursday night, but cautioned the President against unilaterally starting a war without first consulting Congress.
A pair of defense hawks — Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham — who have frequently been critical of Trump, roundly praised his decision Thursday night.
“Acting on the orders of their commander-in-chief, they have sent an important message the United States will no longer stand idly by as Assad, aided and abetted by Putin’s Russia, slaughters innocent Syrians with chemical weapons and barrel bombs,” McCain and Graham said in a joint statement.