U.S. Launches Airstrikes At Syrian Air Base

Apr 7, 2017
Originally published on April 7, 2017 11:10 am
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Let's talk about what we know so far about the U.S. missile strike on a Syrian air base. For that, we're joined by NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman who's in our studios once again.

Hi, Tom.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: So what exactly happened?

BOWMAN: Well, what we know from the Pentagon is that 59 Tomahawk missiles were launched from two Navy ships in the eastern Mediterranean. And it struck this airfield that the Americans say was responsible for this suspected nerve gas attack that has killed, I think, more than 70 people at this point. It took out Syrian aircraft, hardened structures. It took out radar. It took out fuel depots.

And what they're saying is there was a nerve agent depot that they avoided hitting because they didn't want to harm civilians in the area. They also gave the Russians a warning before this happened so they could get their personnel at the airfield away from any sort of threat or danger.

INSKEEP: And let's remember, Russia of course is an ally of Syria. It has people on the ground. It sometimes had airplanes based in Syria.

BOWMAN: Exactly.

INSKEEP: So it's believed there were Russians at this airfield. That was linked to the attack itself, you're saying.

BOWMAN: That's right. They're saying the aircraft took off from this airfield to mount those attacks.

INSKEEP: OK.

BOWMAN: But again, they're still investigating whether it was in fact a nerve agent. We still don't know that.

INSKEEP: OK. Let's keep that caveat in mind. But the United States has alleged it was a nerve agent. And people have seen the videos of suffering...

BOWMAN: That's right.

INSKEEP: ...Suffering civilians. You're telling me that the United States believes that there was a chemical weapons depot at this airfield.

BOWMAN: That's right.

INSKEEP: And that Russians were at this airfield.

BOWMAN: That's right.

INSKEEP: Wasn't Russia, as part of an international agreement back in 2013, supposed to make sure that Syria had given up all of its chemical weapons, years ago?

BOWMAN: That's right. And American officials are saying well, Russia didn't do a very good job if they're at this airfield. And there is a nerve agent - a depot, according to American officials, at this very airfield.

INSKEEP: This doesn't bode well for U.S. relations with Russia. Does it?

BOWMAN: It does not. The Russians are saying it's an illegal act on the part of the United States. It says it's not going to help relations with the United States. And Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is going to be heading to Moscow in - I think, in about another week or so.

INSKEEP: And Russia has made some kind of statement about communication between the military, specifically in Syria, that this is going to end. What does that mean precisely?

BOWMAN: Well, that's a de-confliction. So they want to make sure Russian and American aircraft don't run into each other. So they communicate about - OK, we're going to be going to this section or this area today just so they know who's going where.

INSKEEP: And not shoot each other down and risk a...

BOWMAN: Exactly.

INSKEEP: ...Nuclear conflict or something like that. So that's - they're going to stop communicating in that way.

Let me ask one other thing before I let you go. How much does it really set back Syria's military to hit one air base one time?

BOWMAN: I don't think much at all. And they're going to continue their military operation in Idlib province, and more civilians will likely die. There's no sense that the Syrians are going to stop their effort to take out all rebels that are against the Assad government. And people will likely die in those attacks.

INSKEEP: The redline that's been drawn is with chemical weapons. But conventional attacks on civilians, the United States is not responding to.

BOWMAN: That's right. And of course 400,000 or 500,000 people have died already in this civil war, which shows no sign of ending.

INSKEEP: Tom, thanks very much.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Tom Bowman. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.