The United States launched 50 Tomahawk cruise missiles against Syrian government targets in retaliation for what the Trump administration charges was a Syrian government chemical weapons attack that killed scores of civilians, a U.S. official said on Thursday (Apr 7).
The US strike has killed four soldiers and virtually destroyed its facilities, a monitoring group said.
"An air commodore was among the four soldiers killed," the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
"The airbase was almost completely destroyed -- the runway, the fuel tanks and the air defences were all blown to pieces," the Britain-based monitoring group said.
The targets hit from US ships in the Mediterranean Sea included the air base in the central city of Homs from which the Syrian aircraft staged Tuesday's chemical weapons attack, said the U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
"Tonight I ordered a targeted military strike on airfield in Syria from which the chemical attack was launched," President Donald Trump said in an address to the nation. "I call on all civilised nations in seeking to end the slaughter and bloodshed in Syria."
Syrian state TV said on Friday that "American aggression" had targeted a Syrian military base with "a number of missiles".
The White House was quick to paint the decision as limited to deterring the use of chemical weapons, and not part of a broader military campaign to remove Assad by force.
"The intent was to deter the regime from doing this again, and it is certainly our hope that this has had that effect," Pentagon spokesman Navy Captain Jeff Davis told reporters.
"It will be the regime's choice if there's any more (strikes) and it will be based upon their conduct going forward."
But the strike will send ripples around the world, from Pyongyang to Tehran, as nations and leaders take the measure of the neophyte but often bellicose president.
The timing of the strike, during a meeting with President Xi, will give weight to Trump's threats to deal with North Korea's nuclear and missile programs unilaterally if necessary.
That is a point of contention with Beijing, which would rather go softly-softly with its volatile neighbor.
Tillerson said the attack should leave no one in any doubt that Trump is willing to act if any actor "crosses the line."
The US top diplomat had earlier vowed an "appropriate response" to the attack in Khan Sheikhun in rebel-held Idlib province, which killed at least 86 people, including 27 children, and injured more than 500.
Trump is likely to face questions from Congress about the legality of the strike, which unlike previous attacks against Islamic State group targets in Syria, targeted the Syrian regime and could be considered an act of war.
One official pointed to Article two of the constitution, which allows the president to use force to defend the US national interest.
ASSAD FUTURE 'UNCERTAIN'
The fast-moving events come just days after the Trump administration had signaled it was no longer seeking the Syrian leader's departure from power.
The Khan Sheikhun attack appears to have marked a turning point.
On Wednesday Trump decried the attack as an "affront to humanity." He seemed horrified by photographs showing dead children and victims suffering convulsions and foaming at the mouth.
"It crossed a lot of lines for me," Trump said, alluding to Barack Obama's failure to enforce his own "red line" on the use of chemical weapons in Syria four years ago.
In 2013, Trump had urged then-president Obama not to intervene against Assad.
In a startling about-turn, Tillerson called Thursday for "a political process that would lead to Assad leaving" and said his future role in the country was "uncertain."
The American strike came hours after Syria's Foreign Minister Walid Muallem repeated the regime's denial that it conducted a chemical attack.
"The Syrian army has not, did not and will not use this kind of weapons -- not just against our own people, but even against the terrorists that attack our civilians with their mortar rounds," he said.
A Syrian military source said a U.S. missile strike on a Syrian air base had led to "losses."
"One of our air bases in the central region was exposed at dawn today to a missile strike by the United States, leading to losses," a Syrian state TV news flash cited the source as saying.
Trump ordered the strikes just a day after he pointed the finger at Assad for this week's chemical attack, which killed at least 70 people, many of them children, in the Syrian town of Khan Sheikhoun. The Syrian government has denied it was behind the attack.