WASHINGTON — The US military strike against Syria threatened Russian-US relations on Friday as the Kremlin denounced President Trump’s use of force and the Russian military announced that it was suspending an agreement to share information about air opeations over the country that was devised to avoid accidental conflict.
Trump, who has made repairing strained ties with Moscow a central ambition of his presidency even amid criticism of Russian meddling in last year’s US election, found that goal at risk as both sides traded harsh words in a diplomatic confrontation reminiscent of the darkest moments of the last few years.
President Vladimir Putin’s office called the Tomahawk cruise missile strike on Syria a “significant blow” to the Russia-US relationship and a violation of international law, while Trump administration officials suggested Russia bore some responsibility for the chemical weapons attack on Syrian civilians that precipitated the US response.
The strike roiled world capitals and dominated a session of the United Nations General Assembly. Russia, Syria, and its other backers denounced the military action while US allies in Europe, Israel, and Saudi Arabia cheered Trump on. At home, Trump found support among a broad cross-section of normally critical establishment Republicans and Democrats, from Hillary Clinton to John McCain, who praised him for taking action that president Barack Obama did not under similar circumstances four years ago.
But in a sign of the complicated nature of domestic politics after nearly 16 years of US wars in far-off lands, an odd-bedfellow mix of ideological enemies joined together to criticize Trump’s action, including antiwar liberals who said it violated the Constitution and isolationist conservatives who called it a betrayal of the values he expressed as a candidate. Even some who supported his action, like Clinton, called Trump hypocritical for lamenting the deaths of Syrian babies from chemical weapons while seeking to bar Syrian refugees from the United States.
Trump, who was in Florida meeting with President Xi Jinping of China, left it to others to address the confrontation on Friday, but his team signaled that no further military strikes were imminent unless the Syrian government of President Bashar Assad again used chemical weapons against its own people.
“The United States took a very measured step last night,” Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the United Nations, said Friday during a special meeting of the Security Council focused on Syria. “We are prepared to do more, but we hope that will not be necessary.”
Even as Trump ordered the first direct intervention beyond fighting terrorist factions in Syria’s grinding six-year civil war, the White House indicated no further move to unseat Assad, leaving the strike to speak for itself.
But the airstrike inserted the United States, for a moment at least, into one of the world’s most intractable conflicts and demonstrated the potential dangers of Russian and US forces’ operating in proximity. As many as 100 Russian troops were believed to be stationed at the Syrian air base targeted by US forces. A US official said the Russians on the ground had been given just 60 to 90 minutes of notice that the missiles were coming.
Although Russia did not deploy its air defense system against the US missiles, it flexed its military muscles after the attack. Moscow said it would bolster Syria’s air defenses, and the Russian news agency Tass reported that a frigate would enter the Mediterranean Sea on Friday and visit the logistics base at the Syrian port of Tartus.
The Russian military sent an official message to the Pentagon and summoned the US military attaché in Moscow to announce that it would shut down a hotline established to prevent accidental clashes in the skies over Syria. The United States and Russia have other ways to track each other’s aircraft and avoid collisions, but US officials considered the hotline an important vehicle to ensure safety, and a valuable political connection.
Even as Moscow protested, US officials pointed fingers back, faulting the Kremlin for not enforcing a 2013 deal it brokered with Syria to eliminate all its chemical weapons.
“Clearly, Russia has failed in its responsibility to deliver on that commitment from 2013,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Thursday night. “So either Russia has been complicit or Russia has been simply incompetent in its ability to deliver on its end of that agreement.”
Russia denied that Syria had any chemical weapons or that Assad’s government was behind the chemical attack in Idlib province on Tuesday that left more than 80 people dead: an attack that Western officials have said was conducted with sarin, a lethal nerve agent. Moscow said the attack was a false pretext to launch an air assault against Assad’s government.
“The Syrian army has no chemical weapons at its disposal,” said Dmitri S. Peskov, a spokesman for Putin, blaming “terrorists” for the gas attack.
Syria on Friday condemned the US strike as “a disgraceful act,” news agencies reported. A statement from Assad’s office said the cruise missile strike was the result of “a false propaganda campaign.” Syria has denied that it has chemical weapons.
The cruise missiles struck the Shayrat airfield at 3:40 a.m. Friday, targeting the base that US officials said had conducted the chemical weapons attack.
US military officials said 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles had struck their targets at the airfield, destroying 20 to 25 aircraft — roughly 20 percent of the 7th Wing of the Syrian air force.