Two U.S. Navy destroyers were in position in the eastern Mediterranean with dozens of Tomahawk cruise missiles targeted on a Syrian airfield and launched within three hours of President Donald Trump making the final strike decision, defense and White House officials said Friday.
The officials said the strikes inflicted “severe damage” on the airfield and destroyed at least 20 aircraft as the culmination of a plan put together on quick notice to carry out Trump’s order to retaliate swiftly against an alleged Syrian chemical attack that had occurred less than 72 hours earlier.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who was with Trump for meetings with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Florida, said the initial damage assessments were that “20 percent of the 7th Wing of the Syrian air force” had been eliminated by the 59 Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles, or T-LAMs, or, launched by the Arleigh Burke-class destroyers Ross and Porter.
Defense officials said that at least 20 aircraft were destroyed on the ground at the Shayrat airbase north of Damascus and heavy damage was inflicted on bunkers, fuel and munitions storage facilities and air defense radars by the BQM-109 Tomahawks carrying 1,000-pound conventional warheads.
The airfield’s two runways mostly escaped damage but Tillerson and defense officials said that the runways were not targeted since they could easily be repaired.
“Initial indications are that this strike has severely damaged or destroyed Syrian aircraft and support infrastructure and equipment at Shayrat airfield,” said Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman.
In Florida at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer described a fast-moving series of events leading up to the cruise missile launches.
Trump was informed of the suspected Syrian attack on the northwestern Syrian town of Khan Sheikhoun with the nerve agent Sarin at about 10:30 a.m. Tuesday and immediately ordered his staff to present him with a range of options for retaliation, Spicer said.
Trump met with his staff again on the options at 8 p.m. Tuesday, and again on Wednesday morning, Spicer said. By then, Trump was also receiving input from Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Joint Chiefs Chairman Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford. Trump said he would make a decision Thursday.
Aboard Air Force One enroute to Florida on Thursday afternoon, Trump spoke to his entire national security team through a secure video conference and later met with Tillerson, Mattis, Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, the national security advisor, and others in a secure room in Palm Beach.
That was when “the president gave the OK to move ahead,” Spicer said. At about 7:40 p.m., while Trump was having dinner with the Chinese president, the two destroyers began launching the Tomahawks, Spicer said.
McMaster later said, “This was not a small strike” but precautions were taken to avoid casualties and warnings were sent to Russians at the airfield to avoid the area.
“The one thing that I will tell you though — there was an effort to minimize risk to third country nationals at that airport. I think you read Russians from that,” McMaster said. “We took great pains to try to avoid that. Of course, you know, anytime in a military operation, there are no guarantees.”
He also said, “There were measures put in place to avoid hitting what we believe is a storage of sarin gas there -so that would not be ignited and cause a hazard to civilians or anyone else.”
In Moscow, Russian officials angrily denounced the attacks and said that Russia was pulling out of the memorandum of understanding with the U.S. on the communications between the two militaries over the so-called “deconfliction channel” to avoid misunderstandings on air operations. However, the officials later said that operation of the deconfliction channel was being suspended and not scrapped.
The Syrian regime’s official news agency, SANA, said nine persons were killed at the airbase. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said it appeared that there were no Russian casualties from the cruise missile strikes.
“As for possible victims among Russian servicemen, I have no information on this issue,” Lavrov said, “It appears that there were none.”