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Friday
Apr072017

Eyewitness says Syrian military anticipated US raid

iStock/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) — Syrian military officials appeared to anticipate Thursday's night raid on Syria's Shayrat airbase, evacuating personnel and moving equipment ahead of the strike, according to an eyewitness to the strike.

Dozens of Tomahawk missiles struck the airbase near Homs damaging runways, towers and traffic control buildings, a local resident and human rights activist living near the airbase told ABC News via an interpreter.

U.S. officals believe the plane that dropped chemical weapons on civilians in Idlib Province on Tuesday, which according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights killed 86 people, took off from the Shayrat airbase.

The attack lasted approximately 35 minutes and its impact was felt across the city, shaking houses and sending those inside them fleeing from their windows. Both of the airport's major runways were struck by missiles, and some of its 40 fortified bunkers were also damaged.

Local residents say the Russian military had used the airbase in early 2016 but have since withdrawn their officers, so the base is now mainly operated by Syrian and Iranian military officers. There is also a hotel near the airport where Iranian officers have been staying, though it was not clear whether it was damaged.

The eyewitness believes human casualties, at least within the civilian population, were minimal, as there was no traffic heading toward the local hospital.

The airstrike follows confirmation by the Turkish Health Ministry that autopsies on several victims of Tuesday's attack confirmed the use of the nerve agent sarin in violation of international law.

Soon after the strike, President Donald Trump delivered a statement from his Mar-A-Lago retreat, where he was meeting with Chinese president Xi Jinping.

"There can be no dispute that Syria used banned chemical weapons, violated its obligations under the chemical weapons convention and ignored the urging of the UN security council," Trump said Thursday night. "Years of previous attempts at changing Assad's behavior have all failed and failed very dramatically."

Former National Security Adviser and ABC News contributor Richard Clarke said this attack, one of the quickest displays of force by a new president in recent history, is largely "symbolic."

Following a 2013 chemical weapons attack that killed more than 1400 people outside of Damascus which a U.S. government intelligence assessment concluded likely used a nerve agent, the Obama administration threatened retaliation but ultimately called off planned airstrikes after Assad agreed to turn over the majority of his chemical weapons arsenal to an international watchdog group. Trump has attempted to blame Obama's "weakness" for the worsening violence in Syria.

"This attack on one air base seems more symbolic," Clarke said. "I think Secretary of Defense [General] James Mattis gave the president a list of options, this being the smallest. It was a targeted attack not designed to overwhelm the Syrian military ... I think the president was trying to differentiate himself from his predecessor."

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