Syrians report 15 dead in U.S. airstrike

Syrian officials Friday denounced a U.S. missile strike on one of the country’s air bases in retaliation for a poison gas attack, calling it a "blatant aggression" that killed up to 15 people and caused “significant material damage.”

“This condemned American aggression confirms the continuation of the wrong American strategy and restricts the counter-terrorist operation that the Syrian army is conducting,” the General Command of the Syrian Army said in a statement.

Syrian officials said the airstrikes had killed six people on the base targeted by U.S. missiles, as well as nine others in surrounding villages, according to the Syrian Arab News Agency.

Russia joined in condemning the U.S. strike, with President Vladimir Putin calling the attack on Moscow’s ally “an aggression against a sovereign state in violation of the norms of international law” executed “under a trumped-up pretext,” according to Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov.

Early Friday, Russia’s Defense Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Ignorances Konashenkov said the “combat effectiveness” of the airstrike was “very low.”

Of the 59 missiles dispatched by the U.S. on the Shayrat air base, Konashenkov said, only 23 hit their target.

“The place of the fall of the other missiles is unknown,” said Konashenkov, according to a report by Russian state news operator TASS. He added that the Syrian army’s air defense systems would be reinforced in the near future to “protect the most important infrastructure facilities.”

“It is nakedly clear that the attack on a Syrian air base with U.S. cruise missiles had been planned well beforehand,” he said.

The Russian Foreign Ministry said it was suspending an agreement with the U.S. to prevent incidents and ensure flight safety during military operations in Syria.

Under the memorandum, signed when Russia launched its air campaign in Syria in 2015, Russia and the U.S. had exchanged information about planned flights to avoid conflicts during the thousands of airstrikes that have been conducted.

“Russia suspends the memorandum on the prevention of incidents and ensuring air safety during operations in Syria reached with the U.S.,” the Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

However, officials in Washingto said Friday that the U.S. and Russia are still talking on a communications hotline about aircraft movement in the crowded skies over Syria.

“The Department of Defense maintains the desire for dialogue through the flight safety channel,” Maj. Adrian Rankine-Galloway, a Pentagon spokesman, said in statement. “It is to the benefit of all parties operating in the air over Syria to avoid accidents and miscalculation, and we hope the Russian Ministry of Defense comes to this conclusion as well.”

The Syrian army command said Friday’s missile attack on the air base northeast of Damascus made the U.S. “a partner of Daesh, Nusra and other terrorist organizations.”

Daesh is a common acronym for the militant group Islamic State, and the Nusra Front is a former Al Qaeda affiliate in the region, now known as the Organization for the Liberation of Syria. Both are listed as terrorist entities by the U.S.

About 60 U.S. Tomahawk missiles were used in the predawn strike on the base, which is used by aircraft striking targets in central Syria.

Talal Barazi, the governor of Syria’s Homs province, told Al Arabiya TV that a fire raged for two hours at the Shayrat air base, near the city of Homs, before firefighters put it out.

President Trump ordered the attack in retaliation for an apparent poison gas attack Tuesday that killed up to 70 people in the northern town of Khan Sheikhoun, about 60 miles from the Syrian border in Idlib province, an opposition stronghold.

Turkish experts found evidence that civilians were targeted with chlorine and possibly sarin, a toxic nerve agent.

Peskov said the U.S. strike was an effort to divert attention from recent civilian casualties caused by U.S.-led coalition airstrikes in Iraq, and predicted the latest U.S. attack would worsen the conflict in Syria.

"The Syrian army has no reserves of chemical weapons. The fact of destruction of all the reserves of Syria's chemical weapons has been documented and confirmed,” Peskov told reporters in a conference call.

Russian officials said military operations in Syria can be conducted only under the authorization of the Syrian government and the United Nations Security Council.

“Fighting terrorism in the Middle East and North Africa requires coordinated efforts of the international community under the auspices of the United Nations,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement. “Attempts to pursue geopolitical objectives and violations of the sovereignty of states in the region can only aggravate tensions and further serve to destabilize the situation.”

Speaking at a news conference in Palm Beach, Fla., where Trump is meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Russia had "failed" in its responsibility to deliver on a commitment to secure Syria's chemical weapons.

Tillerson briefed reporters shortly after the U.S. launched the cruise missiles, saying Russia had either been complicit or "simply incompetent" in failing to deliver on a 2013 agreement to remove Syria’s chemical weapons following an earlier chemical weapons attack in the Damascus suburbs that killed hundreds.

The Obama administration had threatened to attack Syrian President Bashar Assad's forces after that incident, but never launched a strike.

Amar Salmo, a civil defense volunteer in northern Syria, welcomed the new U.S. intervention.

“For Syrians, any military intervention that will neutralize Assad’s ability to continue his genocide will fall on our hearts like music,” Salmo said by phone Friday. “If there will not be a cost for Assad after using chemical weapons, it will be a clear signal for him to continue his genocide, killing the innocent.”

An opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition, also praised the U.S. missile strike, saying it puts an end to an age of "impunity" and should be just the beginning.

“We welcome these strikes," Najib Ghadbian, special representative to the U.S. and the U.N. for the Syrian National Coalition, told the Al Jazeera news service.

"They are first good steps, but we would like them to be part of a bigger strategy that would put an end to the mass killing, an end to impunity, and eventually we hope that they will lead to a kind of a political transition in Syria," he said.

Syrian human rights advocates said they hoped the attack signaled the start of a broader U.S. campaign against Assad.

Neighboring Turkey also welcomed the U.S. military move. Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmas told the Daily Sabah that he hoped the strike would ultimately help bring peace to the region.

"The barbarism of the Assad regime must be stopped as soon as possible," Kurtulmuş said.

The bombing was Trump’s most significant military order since taking office 11 weeks ago.

Before the strike, Trump said the Khan Sheikhoun chemical weapons attack crossed "many, many lines" He blamed Assad's forces, saying it "shouldn't have happened, and it shouldn't be allowed to happen."

U.S. officials had hoped for a vote late Thursday on a U.N. Security Council resolution they and allies had drafted, condemning the chemical attack, but council members postponed the vote after delays negotiating the wording with Russian diplomats.

Syrian officials have insisted that they did not use chemical weapons and that it was opposition fighters who stockpiled the chemicals.

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem told reporters that a government airstrike hit a rebel chemical weapons arsenal and munitions factory near Khan Sheikhoun that day, noting militant groups have continued to store chemical weapons in urban areas.

"The Syrian Arab Army did not and will not use such weapons even against the terrorists who are targeting our people," Moallem said at a Thursday briefing in Damascus, adding that “we condemn such a criminal act.”

Russia's Defense Ministry also said the toxic agents were released when a Syrian airstrike hit a rebel arsenal outside Khan Sheikhoun.

Staff writers W.J. Hennigan and Brian Bennett in Washington contributed to this report.

Hennessy-Fiske reported from Irbil and Bulos from Beirut. Special correspondent Mansur Mirovalev contributed from Moscow.

molly.hennessy-fiske@latimes.com

@mollyhf

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UPDATES:

10:15 a.m.: This article was updated with a revised death toll and other new details.

5 a.m.: This article was updated throughout with additional details and background.

3:33 a.m.: This article was updated with new death toll figures.

1:25 a.m.: This article was updated with comments from a Turkish official.

April, 7, 1:10 a.m.: This article was updated with information on casualties and additional statements from the Syrian and Russian governments.

11:05 p.m.: This article was updated with a quote from Najib Ghadbian of the Syrian National Coalition.

This article was originally posted on April 6 at 10:55 p.m.

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