PALM BEACH, Fla. – The U.S. fired cruise missiles on Friday at a Syrian airbase from which it said a deadly chemical weapons attack had been launched this week, the first direct U.S. assault on the government of Bashar al-Assad in six years of civil war.U.S. President Donald Trump ordered the step his predecessor Barack Obama never took: directly targetting Assad’s military with air strikes in punishment for the chemical weapons attack, which killed at least 70 people, many of them children.The strike may have triggered a confrontation with Russia, which has military advisers on the ground assisting its close ally Assad.”Years of previous attempts at changing Assad’s behavior have all failed and failed very dramatically,” Trump said as he announced the attack from his Florida resort, Mar-a-Lago, where he was meeting Chinese President Xi Jinping.”Even beautiful babies were cruelly murdered in this very barbaric attack,” he said of Tuesday’s chemical weapons strike, which Western countries blame on Assad’s forces. “No child of God should ever suffer such horror.”The swift action is likely to be interpreted as a signal to Russia, and also to other countries such as North Korea, China and Iran where Trump has faced foreign policy tests early in his presidency.The Syrian army said the U.S. attack killed six people at its air base near the city of Homs. It called the attack “blatant aggression” and said it made the U.S. a “partner” of “terrorist groups” including Islamic State. Homs Governor Talal Barazi told Reuters the death toll was seven with nine aircraft destroyed.Russian President Vladimir Putin said the strike had damaged ties between Washington and Moscow. Putin, a ally of Assad, regarded the U.S. action as “aggression against a sovereign nation” on a “made-up pretext,” spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.U.S. officials said they had taken pains to ensure Russian troops were not killed, warning Russian forces in advance and avoiding striking parts of the base where Russians were present.Western allies of the U.S. spoke out in support of the decision to launch the strikes. Several countries said they were notified in advance, but none had been asked to take part.U.S. officials and allies described the attack as a one-off that would not lead to further escalation. It signaled Trump’s determination to take “decisive action,” U.S. officials said.For years, Washington has backed rebel groups fighting against Assad in a complex multi-sided civil war under way since 2011 that has killed more than 400,000 people. The war has driven half of Syrians from their homes, creating the world’s worst refugee crisis.The U.S. has been conducting air strikes against Islamic State militants who control territory in eastern and northern Syria, and a small number of U.S. troops are on the ground assisting anti-Islamic State militias. But until now, Washington has avoided direct confrontation with Assad.In the wake of the attack, a warplane on Friday bombed Khan Sheikhoun, where the chemical attack killed scores this week. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a group that monitors the war, said a Syrian government or Russian warplane hit Khan Sheikhoun before noon causing damage but no known casualties.
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