Trumps' missile strike sends warning
Missile strike: Angered by attack on 'beautiful little babies', US president hits out at Syrian leader
WASHINGTON/FLORIDA: Hours after a poison gas attack in Syria killed dozens of civilians on Tuesday, US President Donald Trump's intelligence advisers provided evidence that Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad was behind the atrocity, officials said.
Mr Trump, who had long said the top US priority in Syria should be to fight the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), immediately ordered a list of options to punish Mr Assad, according to senior officials who took part in the flurry of closed-door meetings that played out over two days.
Confronting his first foreign policy crisis, Mr Trump relied on seasoned military experts rather than the political operatives who had dominated policy in the first weeks of his presidency and showed a willingness to move quickly, officials involved in the deliberations said.
On Thursday, Mr Trump ordered the launch of a barrage of cruise missiles against the Shayrat airfield north of Damascus, which the Pentagon says was used to store the chemical weapons used in the attack.
"I think it does demonstrate that President Trump is willing to act when governments and actors cross the line... It is clear that President Trump made that statement to the world," Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told reporters.
Senior administration officials said they met with Mr Trump as early as Tuesday evening and presented options including sanctions, diplomatic pressure and a military plan to strike Syria that was drawn up well before he took office.
"He had a lot of questions and said he wanted to think about it, but he also had some points he wanted to make. He wanted the options refined," one official said.
On Wednesday morning, military advisers said they knew which Syrian air base was used to launch the chemical attack and that they had tracked the Sukhoi-22 jet that carried it out.
Mr Trump told them to focus on the military plans.
That same afternoon, he appeared in the White House Rose Garden and said the "unspeakable" attack against "even beautiful little babies" had changed his attitude towards Mr Assad.
Asked then whether he was formulating a new policy on Syria, Mr Trump replied: "You'll see."
By late afternoon on Thursday, the US Joint Chiefs of Staff met at the Pentagon to finalise the plan for the military strikes as Mr Trump headed to his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida for a summit meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
At another meeting there, Mr Trump signed off on the missile attacks and went to dinner with Mr Xi.
Two warships - the USS Ross and the USS Porter - fired 59 cruise missiles from the eastern Mediterranean Sea at the air base just as the two presidents were finishing their meals.
Throughout the three days of meetings, Mr Trump's key military advisers were national security adviser H.R. McMaster, Defence Secretary Jim Mattis and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joseph Dunford, officials said.
In a White House marked by palace intrigue, General McMaster has jostled for influence with Mr Stephen Bannon, Mr Trump's chief strategist, who lost his seat on the National Security Council on Wednesday just as the military preparations were developing.
The State Department told allies on Thursday that a strike against Syria was imminent, without providing details.
But the move angered Russia, a major ally of Mr Assad, and appeared to diminish chances of closer cooperation with Moscow that Mr Trump has said is possible, especially in fighting ISIS.
Mr Tillerson played down suggestions that Mr Trump was dropping his "America First" approach to foreign policy.
And one of the other officials involved in the planning said the cruise missile launch was a "one-off" strike rather than the start of an escalating campaign. - REUTERS