WASHINGTON — President Trump ordered a cruise missile strike against Syria Thursday, saying "no child of God should ever suffer" the horror of the chemical weapons attack Syria launched on its own people.
Trump ordered the strike against Syria early Friday local time in retaliation for the chemical weapons attack that killed 86 people on Tuesday, he said.
The attack, the first conventional assault on another country ordered by Trump, comes a day after he declared that the chemical weapons assault had “crossed many, many lines,” including the deaths of 27 children.
From his resort in Palm Beach, Fla., Trump said Syrian President Bashar Assad "launched a horrible chemical attack on innocent civilians 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. Even beautiful babies were cruelly murdered at this very barbaric attack. No child of God should ever suffer such horror.
"Tonight I ordered a targeted military strike on the airfield in Syria from where the chemical attack was launched. It is in this vital national security interest of the Untied States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons," Trump said.
Years of previous attempts to change Assad's behavior had failed, Trump said.
The 59 missiles, fired from the destroyers USS Porter and Ross in the eastern Mediterranean Sea, struck the airfield where the Syria based the warplanes used in the chemical attack, according to Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman. The missiles destroyed aircraft, hardened hangars, ammunition supply bunkers, air defense systems and radar at the Shayrat Airfield.
The chemicals used in the attack on April 4 were also stored at the base, Davis said. The missile strike was designed to deter Syria from mounting another chemical attack.
"Obviously, the regime will retain a certain capacity to commit mass murder beyond this particular airfield," National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster told reporters in Palm Beach Thursday night. "I think what it does communicate is a big shift — a big shift in Assad's calculus. It should, anyway."
PHOTOS: US launches airstrikes against Syrian base
The attack essentially follows the plan that the Pentagon had set in September 2013, according to a senior Defense official not authorized to speak publicly about the operation. That plan was devised after President Obama had set a “red line” on the use of chemical weapons. Assad had used the weapons that killed 1,400 civilians, but Obama did not order an attack. Instead, Assad agreed to turn over his stockpiles of chemical weapons, a pledge he obviously reneged on in light of Tuesday’s use of what experts believe was sarin gas on civilians.
In 2013, military planners had planned to use land-attack cruise missiles launched from Navy destroyers cruising off shore from Syria. For weeks, the Navy had four destroyers floating off shore, waiting for the order to strike that never came.
Using ships negates the need to seek permission from countries where U.S. warplanes are based. Land-attack Tomahawk missiles can travel 1,500 miles to strike their target and carry a warhead with 1,000 pounds of conventional explosives.
Among the options that Pentagon planners had developed for Trump: the airfield, military command-and-control centers, air defense systems and troops.
There were no signs immediately after the attack that the Syrians had moved to retaliate, according to a senior Defense official who was not authorized to speak publicly about the operation. There is an expectation that they could harass warplanes from the U.S.-led counter-ISIS mission by training anti-aircraft radar on them when they fly missions in Syria, the official said.
Any attack also puts at risk the hundreds of U.S. special operations troops in eastern Syria who are advising local ground forces in their fight against the Islamic State, or ISIS. The concern, according to the official, is that Assad could order a counter strike, targeting the Americans. There is also the risk that the attack could kill Russian troops who have been supporting the Assad regime.
McMaster said those risks were weighed against the risk of inaction, "which is the risk of this continued, egregious, inhumane attacks on innocent civilians with chemical weapons." Given that choice, the president chose to act, he said.
The Pentagon, which has been bombing ISIS targets in Syria since 2014, can provide extra air patrols to protect those troops. But they still would be vulnerable to attacks by surface-to-surface missiles fired by Syrian forces.