Tensions between Russia and the US are rising after President Donald Trump ordered a missile strike on a Syrian air base allegedly used to stage a chemical attack that killed dozens of civilians.
In a dramatic reversal after years of opposition to US intervention in the Middle East, President Trump said the use of chemical weapons against civilians was “barbaric” and demanded a military response.
Shayrat air base, south of the city of Homs, was hit by 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles in the early hours of Tuesday.
Pictures taken in daylight showed hangars and buildings reduced to rubble by the 1,000lb missiles.
Last night the US ambassador to the United Nations told an emergency session of the Security Council her government was “prepared to do more” to oust Syrian president Bashar al-Assad using military force.
Downing Street welcomed the attack – the first on the Syrian government by the west in the country’s six-year civil war – but the Kremlin denounced it as an “aggression” and a violation of international law.
Russia responded with a promise to strengthen its Syrian ally’s air defences in a warning against further US attacks.
Last night the Russian missile frigate Admiral Grigorovich was en route to the Eastern Mediterranean, where cruise missiles were launched from two US navy destroyers, USS Porter and USS Ross.
The Russian military also withdrew from an information-sharing agreement aimed at avoiding casualties and mid-air collisions between its forces and those of the multinational coalition including the UK as both attack Islamic State.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the US had launched the strikes under a “far-fetched pretext”, and warned that the action would deal “a significant blow to the Russia-US relations, which are already in a deplorable shape”.
Mr Peskov added that the attack creates a “serious obstacle” to the international fight against terrorism, while Russia’s UN ambassador warned of “horrible tragedies” to follow in the region.
There were reports of multiple civilian casualties from the strike in the area surrounding the Syrian base. The US military rejected Russian claims that its missiles had failed to hit the airfield, saying that 58 of the 59 struck their intended targets. A US official said one of the missiles appeared to have malfunctioned.
In Geneva, where talks seeking a diplomatic solution to the conflict have taken place for the past three years, the UN envoy Staffan de Mistura said his office was in “crisis” mode.
Mr de Mistura said he would convene an urgent meeting of a Syrian ceasefire taskforce chaired by the US and Russia.
As recently as last week, the Trump administration had appeared to show little interest in direct confrontation with President al-Assad.
But after at least 86 people including women and children were killed in an apparent Sarin gas attack on Khan Sheikhoun, a rebel-held town, the president emphatically reversed his own policy.
He said the strike was in the “vital national security interest”, adding that the US must “prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons”.
Speaking from his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, Mr Trump announced his strike in an emotional message to the public in which he evoked images of children dying.
“Using a deadly nerve agent, Assad choked out the lives of helpless men, women and children. It was a slow and brutal death for so many,” he said.
The US and UK went to the brink of war with the Syrian government in 2013 after chemical attacks breached a “red line” set by then-President Obama. But both countries stepped back after David Cameron lost a vote on air strikes and Mr Obama resisted pressure from military commanders.
Despite vocally opposing military action in 2013, in his televised address Mr Trump took a swipe at his predecessor, saying: “Years of previous attempts at changing Assad’s behaviour have all failed, and failed very dramatically.”
Defence Secretary Sir Michael Fallon said the attack was “limited” and “wholly appropriate”.
“It targeted the airfield, the aircraft, the support equipment that were involved – the Americans believe – in this gas attack,” he said. “Our assessment is that it is highly likely, from the intelligence we have seen, that it was the regime.”
In New York, the UK’s ambassador to the UN, Matthew Rycroft, said the government backed the US action “because war crimes have consequences and the greatest war criminal of all, Bashar al-Assad, has now been put on notice”.
European and Nato allies offered their support following the US strike, as did Saudi Arabia and Turkey, who also support the Syrian opposition.
Riyadh praised a “courageous decision” by Mr Trump, but Iran, which supports President al-Assad’s government, called it a “dangerous” unilateral action that would “strengthen terrorists” and further complicate the conflict.
Turkey’s foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, said Assad’s government “must be removed from leading Syria as soon as possible, and the best way to do that is by starting the transitional process”.
A Syrian opposition group, the Syrian Coalition, said the US attack puts an end to an age of “impunity” and should herald the start of a larger campaign against Damascus.
Mr Trump may face more opposition at home, where some of his biggest supporters questioned his U-turn on military intervention. Conservative commentator Ann Coulter wrote the media would be thrilled that Trump was “destroying his presidency”.