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MEDITERRANEAN SEA - APRIL 7:  In this handout provided by the U.S. Navy,The guided-missile destroyer USS Porter fires a Tomahawk land attack missile on April 7, 2017 in the Mediterranean Sea. The USS Porter was one of two destroyers that fired a total of 59 cruise missiles at a Syrian military airfield in retaliation for a chemical attack that killed scores of civilians this week. The attack was the first direct U.S. assault on Syria and the government of President Bashar al-Assad in the six-year war there.  (Photo by Ford Williams/U.S. Navy via Getty Images)
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Story highlights

Air base housed Syrian warplanes blamed for chemical attack that killed scores of civilians

Donald Trump says images of dead children changed his thinking on Syria

(CNN) —  

With a decisive strike in Syria, President Donald Trump changed his approach to Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

At Trump’s orders, US warships launched dozens of Tomahawk cruise missiles at a Syrian airfield around 3:40 a.m. Friday local time (8:40 p.m. Thursday ET), marking what ostensibly is the first intentional US military action against government forces during Syria’s six-year civil war.

Before the strike, Trump was against military action aimed at Assad’s forces. What led to the US President’s change of heart? Here are some key details to get you up to speed:

THE BEGINNING

Trump’s reversal on military action in Syria can be traced to Tuesday’s chemical weapons attack that killed dozens of people, including children, in northwestern Syria’s Idlib province.

Syrians bury the bodies of victims of this week's chemical attack.
FADI AL-HALABI/AFP/Getty Images
Syrians bury the bodies of victims of this week's chemical attack.

Warplanes bombed the center of rebel-held Khan Sheikhoun that day, witnesses said. People around the initial blast area appeared to be exposed to neurotoxic agents “such as sarin gas or similar compounds,” international aid group Doctors Without Borders said.

About five hours after the initial attack, two other locations – a makeshift clinic and Al-Rahma hospital, where the injured were being triaged – were hit in fresh strikes, Idlib health officials said, though there were no descriptions of gas then.

At least 86 people, including 26 children, were killed in Tuesday’s attacks, the Union of Medical Care and Relief Organizations said.

The Syrian government denied using chemical weapons, but several countries, including the United States, said they believed the regime was responsible for the attack.

The United States is trying to determine whether others were complicit. For example, the Pentagon is looking at whether a Russian warplane dropped the bomb that hit the hospital, and whether the purpose of the strike was to destroy evidence of the chemical attack, a senior US defense official said Friday.

Images of lifeless children from the Khan Sheikhoun attack became yet another symbol of the international community’s failure to help end the bloody civil war.

In one particular photo, a sobbing father clung to bodies of his 9-month-old twins. Others showed children gasping for breath, along with shell-shocked relatives also affected by the gas.

US RESPONSE

As photos from the attack’s aftermath circulated on social media, so did the outrage. Trump was not immune to the horror either and admitted the images changed his thinking on Syria.

00:33 - Source: CNN
US warships launch cruise missiles at Syria

“When you kill innocent children – innocent babies – babies – little babies with a chemical gas that is so lethal, people were shocked to hear what gas it was, that crosses many, many lines,” the US leader said.

Until the strike, Trump gave no indication of what he was planning to do. Then everything changed early Friday in Syria (Thursday night in the United States).

“Tonight, I ordered a targeted military strike on the air base in Syria from where the chemical attack was launched,” he said from his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida. “It is in this vital national security interest of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons.”

The US missiles struck the Syrian government’s Shayrat air base, where the warplanes believed to have carried out Tuesday’s attack were based, US officials said.

Details about how many people died in the US strike were sketchy. Syrian state-run media reported that the strike killed nine people, including four children. Five people were killed in one village near the air base, and four others people died in an another village, the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency said.

Earlier, Syria’s military said six people were killed. It wasn’t immediately clear whether the military’s toll and SANA’s numbers overlapped.

The United States started launching strikes in Syria in September 2014 under President Barack Obama, but it says it had targeted only the ISIS terrorist group and not government forces.

In September, US-led coalition strikes killed more than 60 Syrian soldiers near Deir Ezzor Airport, the Russian military said. The US said the strikes were intended to target ISIS and expressed regret over the deaths.

US JUSTIFICATION

The United States has “a very high level of confidence” that Syrian government aircraft carried out attacks involving sarin nerve gas not only on Tuesday in Khan Sheikhoun but also on March 25 and 30 in Hama province, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said.

The US military also shared an image of a radar track of a Syrian airplane from the Shayrat airfield flying to the purported chemical strike area Tuesday.

Syria has continuously blamed such attacks on terrorists.

WHAT WAS HIT?

An initial assessment found 58 of the 59 missiles “severely degraded or destroyed” their intended target, a US defense official said on condition of anonymity.

The strike occurred during minimal activity at the base and targeted various items, including petroleum and logistical storage, ammunition supply bunkers and air defense systems, the Pentagon said.

SYRIAN REACTION

Syria described the US strike as an “erroneous American strategy.”

Syrians dig a grave to bury bodies in the Khan Sheikhun attack.
FADI AL-HALABI/AFP/Getty Images
Syrians dig a grave to bury bodies in the Khan Sheikhun attack.

“It makes the United States of America a partner of ISIS, Nusra Front and other terrorist organizations who …. have been attacking Syrian army positions and Syrian military bases,” an armed forces’ statement said.

The Syrian Foreign Ministry described the attack as “a pretext promoted by terrorist organizations and its operatives in Washington, Tel Aviv, Riyadh, Doha, Ankara, London and Paris and their media outlets.”

Assad called it an “unjust and unabashed assault.”

RUSSIA’S REACTION

Syria’s powerful backer, Russia, did not mince words.

The Kremlin said Russian President Vladimir Putin regards the US strike as “an aggression against a sovereign state in violation of the norms of international law.”

“Vladimir Putin believes that complete disregard for factual information about the use by terrorists of chemical weapons drastically aggravates the situation,” its statement said.

It said the strike “dealt a serious blow to Russian-US relations, which are already in a poor state.”

Russia said Friday it was suspending a communications channel aimed at minimizing risks of in-flight incidents between the US-led coalition and Russian aircraft.

The Russian Defense Ministry also said that it plans to bolster and increase the effectiveness of the Syrian military’s air defense system.

Before the strike, Russian officials warned the United States against making any “snap judgments” on Tuesday’s chemical weapons attack.

OTHER REACTIONS