As Trump embarked on a White House address to announce the action – taken in defiance of Russian warnings – explosions were heard in the Syrian capital Damascus, signalling a new chapter in a brutal seven-year-old civil war.
Trump said he had ordered US forces to launch precision strikes “on targets associated with the chemical weapons capabilities of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.”
He said a combined operation had been launched with the forces of Britain and France, whose leaders have rallied behind Trump’s call for a response to an alleged chemical attack on the town of Douma a week ago that rescuers and monitors say killed more than 40 people.
Syrian surface-to-air missile batteries had attempted to fire back, but there were no initial reports of losses, he added.
Syrian state media said air defences were activated to block the attack and published images of smoke clouds hanging over the capital.
Syria’s foreign ministry denounced the strikes as a “brutal, barbaric aggression” and suggested they were aimed at “hindering” the work of inspectors from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons due to start in Damascus later today.
Russia’s defence ministry said more than 100 cruise missiles and air-to-land missiles had been fired and that “a significant number” were shot down.
It said that none of the Western strikes in Syria had hit areas covered by Russia’s air defences around its Hmeimim airbase and naval facility in Tartus.
Moscow denied Assad had any role in the alleged attack, pushing a variety of alternative theories that peaked with a claim that Britain staged the event.
At the United Nations, Russia’s diplomats vetoed a US motion to re-establish an international investigation into chemical weapons use in Syria that could have established blame.
Washington, Paris and London have nevertheless insisted that their own secret intelligence points to Assad’s guilt, and yesterday, a US spokeswoman said they had “proof.”
The Russian military had vowed to respond to any attack, and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s administration had repeatedly warned that Trump was taking America down a dangerous path.
State media published images of a cloud of reddish smoke hanging over the capital and said that air defences were activated to block the attack.
Western powers blamed President Bashar al-Assad, but Syria and its ally Russia categorically denied the claims and accused the West of “fabricating” the incident to justify military action.
The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons was set to begin its investigation inside the Eastern Ghouta town of Douma on Saturday, just hours after the strikes.