WASHINGTON -- Russia and its dwindling number of allies were left further isolated following the near unanimous international backing of punitive strikes against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad Saturday (April 14) for its use of chemical weapons.
The Russian-backed Syrian regime is accused of using chemical weapons on April 6 in the rebel holdout of Douma, close to Damascus, killing at least 40 people and hospitalising more than 500.
The United States, Britain and France carried out a wave of pre-dawn strikes against suspected Syrian chemical weapons facilities Saturday in retaliation for the regime's "clear violation" of international law.
Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford said the precision strikes hit three targets: a scientific research centre near Damascus, a storage facility and command post also near the capital, and a chemical weapons storage facility near Homs.
A top Pentagon official, Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, said the action would set back Syria's chemical weapons programme "for years."
Syrian state media reported three people injured and Russia's Defence Ministry said there were "no victims" among Syrian civilians and military personnel.
France said it fired cruise missiles from frigates in the Mediterranean and deployed fighter jets from home bases as part of its strikes. Britain's Defence Ministry said that four British Tornado jets had fired Storm Shadow missiles at a base 25km west of Homs city.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said Saturday that the missile strikes had destroyed a "large part" of Damascus's stocks of chemical weapons.
Russia sides with 'a monster'
Branding the alleged gas attack the "crimes of a monster", US President Donald Trump announced the military action against the Syrian regime in a White House address Friday, defying fierce warnings from the Kremlin.
"The evil and the despicable attack left mothers and fathers, infants and children thrashing in pain and gasping for air," he said. "These are not the actions of a man. They are crimes of a monster instead."
"This collective action sends a clear message that the international community will not stand by and tolerate the use of chemical weapons," British Prime Minister Theresa May said on Saturday.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg backed the strikes, saying they "will reduce the regime's ability to further attack the people of Syria with chemical weapons".
"We welcome this operation which has eased humanity's conscience in the face of the attack in Douma," the Turkish Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
"The Syrian regime, which has been tyrannising its own people for more than seven years, be it with conventional or chemical weapons, has a proven track record of crimes against humanity and war crimes," it said.
European Council President Donald Tusk said on Twitter that the European Union supported the strikes and "will stand with our allies on the side of justice".
"Strikes by US, France and UK make it clear that Syrian regime together with Russia and Iran cannot continue this human tragedy, at least not without cost," Tusk said in a Twitter message.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel called the strikes a "necessary and appropriate military intervention".
The Czech Republic, the Netherlands, Portugal, Romania, Slovenia and Spain defended the strikes as justified by evidence of a chemical attack.
Gulf Arab states also issued statements of support, with the Saudi Foreign Ministry saying Saudi Arabia fully supports the strikes "because they represent a response to the regime's crimes".
Kremlin's 'fake news' ridiculed
In the buildup to the punitive strikes, the Kremlin issued a number of far-fetched claims intended to derail efforts and sow confusion. Those attempts failed.
Russian Defence Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov on Friday said Britain had pressured the White Helmets, who act as first responders in rebel-held areas of Syria, to fake the suspected chemical attack in the town of Douma.
The military has "proof that testifies to the direct participation of Britain in the organising of this provocation in Eastern Ghouta," Konashenkov said.
Britain's UN Ambassador Karen Pierce called the spokesman's remarks "grotesque" and "a blatant lie."
"It's some of the worst piece of fake news we've seen yet from the Russia propaganda machine," Pierce told reporters at UN headquarters in New York.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov followed up on those comments Friday with warnings that punitive strikes on Syria would lead to new waves of migrants to Europe -- a move clearly aimed at stoking fears among Europeans.
Videos, pictures and the accounts of first responders corroborate claims that a chlorine gas bombardment ravaged the rebel-held enclave of Douma last weekend, and both the United States and France said they have "proof" the Syrian regime was behind the attack.
Chemical weapons probe to continue
Experts from the world's global chemical arms watchdog are continuing their mission to probe the alleged gas attack in Douma, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) said Saturday.
The OPCW has been "working in close collaboration" with UN security experts "to assess the situation and ensure the safety of the team", it said.
It vowed in its statement that the fact-finding mission due to go to Douma later Saturday "will continue its deployment to the Syrian Arab Republic to establish facts around the allegations of chemical weapons use in Douma".