The United States on Friday threatened to take further military action in Syria following its missile strikes on a government air base in retaliation for a suspected chemical weapons attack on a rebel-held town that killed scores of civilians.
The Pentagon said 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles were fired from two warships in the Mediterranean at the Shayrat airfield in Homs province.
“The United States took a very measured step last night,” US Ambassador Nikki Haley told the UN Security Council.
“We are prepared to do more, but we hope it will not be necessary.”
Six killed in US attack on Syrian airbase
The Security Council was meeting in an emergency session to discuss the US actions in Syria that Russia branded a “flagrant violation of international law and an act of aggression” against Syria.
Haley said the air strikes destroyed an air field from which the US believes the chemical attacks on the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhun in Idlib province were launched.
“We were fully justified in doing so,” she said.
At least 86 people, including at least 27 children, were killed in a poison gas the attack in Khan Sheikhun, which the US has blamed on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
“The United States will no longer wait for Assad to use chemical weapons without any consequences,” Haley said. “Those days are over.”
While threatening further strikes, the US envoy also said it was time to press on with a political solution to the six-year war.
Al Jazeera’s senior political analyst Marwan Bishara questioned whether the massive missile barrage was simply bravado, or part of a larger strategic plan.
“Is it because Trump wants to prove he is a resolute, decisive leader who is independent of [Russian President] Putin, or is this punitive attack part of a comprehensive effort aimed at leveraging American influence in Syria to lead to a diplomatic solution,” he said.
Haley also took a swipe at Russia for failing to rein in its ally, and said Moscow must reconsider its support for Assad.
“The world is waiting for the Russian government to act responsibly in Syria. The world is waiting for Russia to reconsider its misplaced alliance with Bashar al-Assad,” she said.
The US said 58 of the 59 cruise missiles fired at the Shayrat airfield hit their targets, dealing heavy damage to the base.
Idlib attack : Results show chemical weapons were used
But the Russian Ministry of Defence downplayed the damage, claiming only 23 missiles landed on target.
Satellite footage showed many of the runways were fully intact, as well as untouched defence surface-to-air rocket launcher and radar systems.
Less than 24-hours after the US strike, two Syrian jets took off from the targeted base and bombed nearby rebel targets, according to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Regardless of its damage, the attack – Trump’s biggest military decision since taking office – marked a dramatic escalation in US involvement in Syria’s six-year civil war.
It followed days of outrage over images of dead children and victims suffering convulsions from the suspected sarin gas attack in the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhun.
Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, on social media, said the strikes were illegal and had brought the US “one step away from military clashes with Russia”.
Russia’s Defence Ministry notified the Pentagon it would close down later on Friday the communications line used to avoid accidental clashes in Syria, Interfax new agency said.
US jets frequently attack Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) fighters in Syria and come close to Russian forces.
US officials informed Russian forces ahead of the missile strikes, and avoided hitting Russian personnel.
The Syrian government and Moscow have denied that Syrian forces were behind the gas attack, but Western countries have dismissed their explanation that chemicals leaked from a rebel weapons depot after an air strike as not credible.
Syria’s army had earlier said six people were killed in the attack, without specifying if they were military personnel or civilians.
The official state news agency SANA said the strikes killed nine civilians in villages near the base.
US allies from Asia, Europe and the Middle East expressed support, if sometimes cautiously, for Friday’s missile barrage.
Opposition figures hailed the move as “first good steps” but demanded they be included within a larger strategy aimed at ending the war.
Homs Governor Talal Barazi said the US’ direct strike on the Syrian military was a clear sign it was supporting “terrorists”.
The action is likely to be interpreted as a signal to Russia, as well as countries such as North Korea, China and Iran – where Trump has faced foreign policy tests early in his presidency – that he is willing to use force.
US strikes in Syria: Game changer or deterrent?
Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies