US airstrikes on Syria unsettle Europe's attitudes toward Trump
By MICHAEL BIRNBAUM AND SUDARSAN RAGHAVAN | The Washington Post | Published: April 7, 2017
BRUSSELS — U.S. airstrikes against Syria unsettled Europe's political landscape Friday, drawing praise from leaders who have been skeptical of President Donald Trump and criticism from one of his closest British allies.
The United States' first direct attack on the Syrian government in the six-year-old civil war upended European assumptions about Trump's robustly noninterventionist approach toward Syrian President Bashar Assad, days after the Syrian government is believed to have used a chemical weapon against civilians.
In the Middle East, meanwhile, reaction to the intervention broke along long-standing fault lines in a region split by the Syrian conflict, with some calling it a valid response to the use of the banned weaponry and others warning that the airstrikes could further inflame the region.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President François Hollande backed Trump's actions even though both leaders have been cautious about his approach to foreign policy. The use of chemical weapons demands a response, they said.
"President Assad holds the sole responsibility for this development," the leaders said in a joint statement.
They gave no sign that they plan to join in any anti-Assad airstrikes, nor did they say they had been invited to do so. France has been readier to confront Assad militarily than the United States in recent years: Hollande was in the middle of battle preparations in September 2013 when President Barack Obama scuttled plans to go after Assad following a sarin nerve-agent attack in a rebel-held area of the Damascus suburbs.
But the unpopular Hollande will remain in office only until next month, and he is now likely to defer significant military decisions to his successor.
Merkel, who leads the strongest economy in Europe, has been among the most forceful voices to push Trump to hold to a values-based foreign policy, although she has been careful not to criticize him outright.
Early Friday, the U.S. military launched 59 cruise missiles from two ships stationed in the Mediterranean Sea, targeting a Syrian air base. The assault, authorized by the Trump administration, was in response to a chemical attack that killed scores of civilians, many of them children, this week in the northern Syrian province of Idlib.
In a sign of how polarizing Trump remains in Europe, the U.S. intervention was condemned by Merkel's leading challenger in Germany's upcoming election, slated for September.
"This is the time for talks - not for bombs," center-left Social Democratic leader Martin Schulz wrote on Twitter.
Britain also offered its backing to the U.S. military attack but said it would not be participating.
"We fully support what the Americans have done," British Defense Secretary Michael Fallon told the BBC.
Fallon called on Russia to use its leverage with Assad to end the Syrian war, and said that "we will all be working much harder" to achieve a political settlement.
Fallon said that the United States had not asked Britain to participate in the strikes and that any British decision to get involved would require the consent of Parliament. He suggested that the government would not seek that approval.
In 2013, the House of Commons blocked British participation in an anticipated U.S.-led air campaign against Assad, a move that contributed to Obama's decision to nix those plans.
But Trump's biggest backer in Britain - populist firebrand Nigel Farage - broke with the U.S. president on the latter's first major military decision.
In a tweet, Farage said that "many Trump voters will be worried about this military intervention. Where will it end?"
For the United States' Middle East allies, Friday's operation has been long awaited.
Saudi Arabia - a major supplier of weapons and financial assistance to several Syrian opposition groups, including some radical Islamists - has long called for a no-fly zone to protect civilians. The Sunni kingdom's leaders were disappointed, even angered, by the Obama administration's decision not to carry out airstrikes after the 2013 chemical attack.
On Friday, Riyadh said it "fully supports" the U.S. strikes and applauded Trump's decision to launch them as a brave response meant to hold the Syrian government accountable.
In Turkey, home to more than 3 million Syrian refugees, officials described the airstrikes that struck the Shayrat air base in Homs, Syria, as a positive response.
The air base is believed to be where chemical weapons were loaded onto aircraft that carried out the bombing in Idlib. The Syrian government claims that its airstrikes hit a rebel factory where chemical weapons were being made, releasing the toxins. But U.S. military officials are convinced that the Assad regime carried out the massacre.
"The destruction of Shayrat air base marks an important step to ensure that chemical and conventional attacks against the civilian population do not go unpunished," said Ibrahim Kalin, spokesman for Turkey's president.
Israeli leaders also embraced the U.S. move.
"In both word and action, President Trump sent a strong and clear message today that the use and spread of chemical weapons will not be tolerated," the office of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement. Israel has long opposed Assad's regime.
Iran, which along with Russia has backed Assad in his attempt to crush his opponents, denounced the U.S. airstrikes. The Shiite theocracy's state news agency quoted a Foreign Ministry spokesman describing the attacks as "dangerous, destructive and a violation of international laws to use it as an excuse to take unilateral actions."
"Iran strongly condemns any such unilateral strikes," spokesman Bahram Qasemi was quoted as saying. "Such measures will strengthen terrorists in Syria . . . and will complicate the situation in Syria and the region."
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Raghavan reported from Cairo. Griff Witte in London, Ruth Eglash and William Booth in Jerusalem, Erin Cunningham in Kabul, Heba Mahfouz in Cairo and Louisa Loveluck in Beirut contributed to this report.