April 6 (UPI) -- President Donald Trump on Thursday night ordered the firing of 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles into a west Syrian airfield from where it's believed President Bashar al-Assad's regime launched a deadly chemical attack this week that killed and injured hundreds of men, women and children.
"Tonight, I ordered a targeted military strike on the airfield in Syria from where the chemical attack was launched," the president said at his Palm Beach, Fla., estate, where he is meeting for talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping. "It is in this vital national security interest of the United States to prevent and deter the spread or use of deadly chemical weapons.
"Tuesday, Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad launched a horrible chemical weapons attack on innocent civilians," he said. "Assad choked out the lives of helpless men, women and children ... even beautiful babies were cruelly murdered. No child of God should ever suffer such horror.
"Tonight, I call on all civilized nations to join us in seeking to end the slaughter and bloodshed in Syria."
The United States launched the Tomahawk cruise missiles -- with around 60,000 pounds of explosives -- within 60 seconds, targeting the al-Shayrat airfield near the city of Homs. The sea-launched missiles, which fly close to the ground to avoid radar detection, targeted planes, fuel and other support infrastructure at the Syrian base.
The missiles were launched from two Navy destroyers -- the USS Ross and USS Porter -- in the eastern Mediterranean Sea at about 8:40 p.m. EDT (4:40 a.m. Friday in Syria), the Pentagon announced.
"We are assessing the results of the strike," Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, said. "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."
Russia, which was given advance notice of the U.S. strikes, maintains a presence at the base but the United States made sure not to attack them, Davis said.
The missile strikes were the first direct U.S. assault on the Syrian government since the country's civil war began six years ago.
Introduced in 1991, the long-range, subsonic BGM-109 Tomahawk missiles have long been a preferred U.S. weapon of choice in conducting precision strikes in foreign lands. Nearly 300 Tomahawks were launched in the first Gulf War, about 800 were used by former President Bill Clinton for targets in Iraq, Serbia and Montenegro, and hundreds more were fired in the second Gulf War.
The missiles were developed in the 1970s by General Dynamics and McDonnell Douglas. Today, they are built by Raytheon at a cost of more than $1 million each.
President Barack Obama launched 47 of the missiles in surgical strikes inside Syria targeting the Islamic State terror group in 2014, but was reluctant to attack Assad's forces without congressional approval. After Tuesday's chemical attack, Trump criticized the former president for not acting on his "red line" threat to respond if chemical weapons were used by the Syrian regime.
After the chemical attack on Syrian civilians near the battle-scarred northern city of Aleppo, Trump answered publicly with a resolve to put an end to what he said was a clear use of banned chemical munitions by Assad's government.
"We ask for God's wisdom as we face the challenge of our very troubled world," the president said Thursday night after announcing the strikes. "We pray for the lives of the wounded and for the souls of those who have passed, and we hope that as long as America stands for justice then peace and harmony will in the end prevail."
Trump arrived Thursday afternoon at his Mar-a-Lago estate for talks with Xi. Before dinner with the Chinese leader, Trump met with his national security team, including Defense Secretary James Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and national security adviser Gen. H.R. McMaster to discuss a potential military response to this week's chemical attack. That's when the president made the decision to launch an assault, an administration official told CNN.
"There can be no dispute that Syria used banned chemical weapons, violated its obligations under the Chemical Weapons Convention, and ignored the urging of the U.N. Security Council," Trump said after the strike. "Years of previous attempts at changing Assad's behavior have failed and failed very dramatically. As a result, the refugee crisis continues to deepen and the region continues to destabilize -- threatening the United States and its allies."
"In both word and action, President Trump sent a strong and clear message today that the use and spread of chemical weapons will not be tolerated," Netanyahu said. "Israel fully supports President Trump's decision and hopes that this message of resolve in the face of the Assad regime's horrific actions will resonate not only in Damascus, but in Tehran, Pyongyang and elsewhere."
"Saudi Arabia fully supports the U.S. military operations against military targets in Syria, which were a response to the regime's use of chemical weapons against innocent civilians," a foreign ministry official in Riyadh told the state SPA news agency.
Authorities are assessing Tuesday's chemical attack, which officials estimate killed more than 70 people and injured another 400. The strike further solidified the United States' fierce opposition to leaving Assad in power -- a prospect Obama's government repeatedly tried to remove, through various means.
Tillerson told reporters Thursday that "steps are underway" to create an international coalition to remove Assad from power.
"The process by which Assad would leave is something that I think requires an international community effort," the State Department chief said.
The United States has a substantial military presence in the region. The USS George H.W. Bush aircraft carrier is deployed to the Middle East, and includes guided-missile destroyers and cruisers that can also launch Tomahawk cruise missiles.
Syria's civil war, now in its seventh year, has resulted in the deaths of more than a half-million people. It has been a major source of tension between Washington, Damascus and the Russian government, which remains a staunch ally of Assad's and has provided his regime with military support.
Tillerson said Thursday's strikes do not indicate a significant departure from the administration's policy toward Syria. Analysts, though, warn that such a dramatic response will almost certainly be viewed by adversarial governments as a considerable paradigm shift.
Russian President Vladimir Putin considers the attack as "aggression against a sovereign state in violation of international norms," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Friday, according to Russian agencies.
"U.S. strikes on [the] Syrian aviation base may undermine the efforts in the fight against terrorism in Syria," Viktor Ozerov, head of the defense committee in the Russian Federation Council, told a Russian news agency early Friday. "Russia will demand an urgent U.N. Security Council meeting after the U.S. airstrike on Syrian aviation base.
"This is an act of aggression against a U.N. member."
Ozerov also said existing cooperation between the Russian and U.S. militaries might now be suspended over Trump's decision to react militarily.
Iran's Foreign Ministry also condemned the missile strikes, saying the "unilateral action is dangerous, destructive and violates the principles of international law," according to the Times of Israel.
Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, said in a statement that Trump's military response sends a "clear signal that the United States will stand up for internationally accepted norms and rules against the use of chemical weapons."
However, Cardin said Congress will need to be consulted if the Trump administration takes stronger military action.
"Assad has an air force, and that air force is the cause of most of these civilian deaths as we have seen over the years and as we saw again in the last few days," Clinton said at the "Women in the World" summit in New York City. "And I really believe that we should have and still should take out his air fields and prevent him from being able to use them to bomb innocent people and drop sarin gas on them."
Tuesday was not the first time Assad has been accused of waging chemical warfare on his civilians. Many analysts believe it's been a hallmark of his bloody six-year crusade to fight off rebels and keep power -- similar to what former dictator Saddam Hussein did in Iraq for decades.
Russia, Assad's biggest ally, has provided military air support for Syria's fight against Islamic State terrorists and revolutionary insurgents for more than a year. A U.S.-led coalition supporting the rebels has led the charge to oust Assad and has brokered multiple unsuccessful cease-fire agreements for that purpose. U.S. military troops, however, have been scarce inside Syria's borders -- as Pentagon strategists have instead chosen to maintain strictly a training and advisory role for the rebel alliance.