WASHINGTON, April 7, 2017 —
The Syrian airbase targeted in yesterday’s U.S. missile strike is believed to be where Syrian President Bashar Assad regime aircraft took off for a deadly chemical attack against civilians earlier this week, senior military officials speaking on background told reporters at a Pentagon briefing today.
The U.S. military action is meant to "deter the regime from using chemical weapons and so the proportionality is measured against that outcome," an official said. "We do not believe it's acceptable for the Syrian regime to use chemical weapons."
According to the Pentagon, hundreds of civilians were killed or injured in the April 4 chemical attack in Khan Sheikhoun, Syria.
The two senior military officials who spoke to reporters at the briefing said the Shayrat Airfield in Homs governate in Syria that was targeted by the U.S. strike has a "history" of having chemical weapons stored there.
An official said there is "high confidence" the airfield is where the Syrian regime’s aircraft took off for the April 4 attack.
'Proportional Response' to Deadly Chemical Attack
The United States also believes that a nerve agent like sarin was used in the chemical attack against the civilians, an official said.
In response to the attack, under the orders of President Donald J. Trump, the U.S. military conducted a cruise missile strike yesterday in Syria, the officials pointed out.
The U.S. strike was a "proportional response" to the chemical attack, the officials said. The airfield is in an isolated area and the strike was conducted in the early morning hours in Syria, to minimize the risk to civilians, according to the officials.
The U.S. was not tracking the airfield as an active chemical site, an official said, but the military did take precautions not to hit anything that could possibly lead to the inadvertent release of chemical munitions or chemical substances.
Syrian and Russian forces operate at that airfield, they noted. The United States notified Russia ahead of the strike, to avoid any possible misinterpretation, the officials explained.
Fifty-nine Tomahawk missiles each struck a target on the airfield, they said.
The U.S. military action is believed to have destroyed approximately 20 aircraft, the officials said. Other damage includes the destruction of surface-to-air missile systems, and the destruction or damage of targeted hangars, an official pointed out.
Hospital Struck After Chemical Attack
Shortly after the regime's chemical attack, a small, unmanned aerial vehicle -- "either [Syrian] regime or Russian" -- was seen over the local hospital as victims were being rushed there for care, an official said.
"About five hours later, the UAV returned and the hospital was struck by additional munitions," an official said.
The official pointed out the site is clearly a hospital. The United States is interested in finding out who would strike that site and why, the official said.
Russian 'Failure' to Control Syrian Activities
At a minimum, an official pointed out, the Russians "failed to control the activities of their Syrian client." Moscow had pledged after a Syrian chemical attack in 2013 that it would guarantee the removal and elimination of Syria's chemical weapons capabilities.
"We've seen Russian failure to stop the regime from barrel bomb campaigns and campaigns against innocent civilians, especially in Aleppo, but really across the opposition held areas in the country," the official said.
The official noted the United States is assessing all the information and could not "clearly say here in this forum what kind of participation the Russians might have had" in the chemical attack or associated activities.
(Follow Lisa Ferdinando on Twitter: @FerdinandoDoD)