Washington - The United States, Britain and France carried out a wave of pre-dawn strikes against Syria’s regime Saturday in response to a suspected chemical weapons attack, lighting up the sky of Damascus as explosions shook the city.

Syrian television reported that Syria’s air defences, which are substantial, responded to the attack. Defence Secretary Jim Mattis said there were no reports of US losses in what he described as a heavy but carefully limited assault.

“A perfectly executed strike,” President Donald Trump tweeted Saturday in the aftermath of his second decision in two years to fire missiles against Syria. “Could not have had a better result. Mission Accomplished!”

His choice of words recalled a similar claim associated with President George W Bush following the US-led invasion of Iraq. Bush addressed sailors aboard a ship in May 2003 alongside a “Mission Accomplished” banner, just weeks before it became apparent that Iraqis had organised an insurgency that tied down US forces for years.

Syria’s chief allies, Russia and Iran, called the use of force by the United States, Britain and France a “military crime” and “act of aggression” with the potential to worsen a humanitarian crisis after years of civil war.

“Good souls will not be humiliated,” Syrian President Bashar Assad tweeted, while hundreds of Syrians gathered in Damascus, where they flashed victory signs and waved flags in scenes of defiance after the one-hour barrage launched Friday evening (early Saturday in Syria).

The strikes “successfully hit every target,” Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White said at a briefing Saturday, disputing the Russian military’s contention that Syrian air defence units downed 71 out of 103 cruise missiles fired by the allies.

Lt Gen Kenneth McKenzie, the director of the Joint Staff at the Pentagon, said no aircraft or missiles involved in the operation “were successfully engaged by Syrian air defences.” He said 105 weapons were launched against three targets, and that the US was not aware of any civilian casualties.

A global chemical warfare watchdog group said its fact-finding mission would go as planned in Douma, where the apparent use of poison gas against civilians on April 7 that killed more than 40 people compelled the Western allies to launch their attack. Syria has denied the accusation.

But France’s foreign minister said there was “no doubt” the Assad government was responsible, and he threatened further retaliatory strikes if chemical weapons were used again, as did Pentagon chief Jim Mattis, who said the assault was a “one-time shot,” as long as chemical weapons weren’t used again.

Pentagon officials said the attacks, carried out by manned aircraft and from ships that launched cruise missiles from the Mediterranean Sea, targeted the heart of Assad’s programmes to develop and produce chemical weapons, and delivered “a very serious blow,” said McKenzie.

Trump said the US was prepared to sustain economic, diplomatic and military pressure on Assad until he ends what Trump called a criminal pattern of killing his own people with internationally banned chemical weapons. That did not mean military strikes would continue; in fact, Gen Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said no additional attacks were currently planned.

Russian leader Vladimir Putin reaffirmed the Kremlin’s skepticism about the allies’ Douma claim, saying Russian military experts had found no trace of the attack. He criticised the US and its allies for launching the strike without waiting for international inspectors to visit the area.

But British Prime Minister Theresa May cited reports she said indicated the Syrian government used a barrel bomb — large containers packed with fuel, explosives and scraps of metal — to deliver the chemicals. “No other group” could have carried out that attack, she said, adding that the allies’ use of force was “right and legal.”

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the West’s response was “necessary and appropriate.”

Mattis disclosed that the US had not yet confirmed that the Douma attack — the most recent suspected Syrian chemical weapons attack, on April 7 — included the use of sarin gas. He said at least one chemical was used — chlorine, which also has legitimate industrial uses and had not previously triggered a US military response.

He said the targets selected by US, British and French officials were meant to minimise civilian casualties. “This is difficult to do in a situation like this,” he said, in light of the volatility of chemical agents.

Defence officials from the countries involved in the attack gave differing accounts of how much warning was given to the Russians, Syria’s powerful ally.

Dunford said the US did not coordinate targets with or notify the Russian government of the strikes, beyond normal airspace “de-confliction” communications. But the description from an ally put things differently. French Defence Minister Florence Parly said that “with our allies, we ensured that the Russians were warned ahead of time.”

At a Pentagon news conference alongside Mattis, and with British and French military officers beside them to emphasise allied unity, Dunford said the attacks targeted mainly three targets in western Syria.

Dunford said missiles first struck a scientific research centre in the Damascus area that he said was a centre of Syrian research, development, production and testing of chemical and biological warfare technology. The second target was a chemical weapons storage facility west of Homs. He said this was believed to be the main site of Syrian sarin and precursor chemical production equipment.

The third target was a chemical weapons equipment storage facility and an important command post, also west of Homs, Dunford said.

British leader May said in London that the West had tried “every possible” diplomatic means to stop Assad from using chemical weapons. “But our efforts have been repeatedly thwarted” by Syria and Russia, she said.

“So there is no practicable alternative to the use of force to degrade and deter the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime,” May said. “This is not about intervening in a civil war. It is not about regime change.”

TURKEY WELCOMES STRIKES AS ‘APPROPRIATE’

Turkey on Saturday welcomed Western strikes targeting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime as an “appropriate response” to a suspected chemical attack. “We welcome this operation which has eased humanity’s conscience in the face of the attack in Douma, largely suspected to have been carried out by the regime,” the Turkish foreign ministry said in a statement in Ankara.

KSA TERMS IT RETALIATION FOR REGIME ‘CRIMES’

Saudi Arabia expressed its full support for US-led strikes on Syrian government military installations, saying they were a response to “regime crimes” against civilians.

“Saudi Arabia fully supports the strikes launched by the United States, France and Britain against Syria because they represent a response to the regime’s crimes,” a foreign ministry statement said.

The statement, carried by the official Saudi Press Agency, said the strikes were prompted by the “Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons against innocent civilians, including women and children”.

KHAMENEI SLAMS ‘CRIMINALS’ TRUMP, MACRON, MAY

Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei denounced President Trump, France’s Macron and Britain’s Theresa May after they launched strikes Saturday against the Syrian regime, branding them “criminals”.

“The attack this morning against Syria is a crime,” Khamenei said in remarks published on his Telegram channel.

“The American president, the French president and the British prime minister are criminals, they will gain nothing from it,” he said.

Speaking during a meeting with high-ranking political and military figures, Khamenei added: “The American president says he attacked Syria to fight against chemical weapons. He is lying.”

CHINA ‘OPPOSED TO THE USE OF FORCE’

China said it was “opposed to the use of force” following US-led air strikes against Syria and called for a “return to the framework of international law”.

“We consistently oppose the use of force in international relations, and advocate respect for the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of all countries,” foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said in a statement on its website.

Hua said unilateral military action bypassing the UN Security Council would “add new complicating factors to the resolution of the Syrian issue”.

“China believes that a political solution is the only realistic way out for the Syrian issue,” she added.

“China urges all the relevant parties to return to the framework of international law and to resolve the issue through dialogue and consultation.”

Russia fails to win UN backing

Russia on Saturday failed to win UN backing for a condemnation of military strikes launched by the United States, Britain and France on Syria.

A Russian-drafted resolution won three votes at the Security Council, far below the nine votes required for adoption. Eight countries voted against and four abstained.

The Russian measure would have condemned the “aggression” against Syria and demanded that the three allies refrain from any further strike.

The vote was held after the United States warned that it was “locked and loaded,” ready to launch more military strikes on Syria if President Bashar al-Assad’s forces carry out a new chemical weapons attack.