Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

U.S.-Led Attack Targets 3 Syrian Chemical Weapons Facilities


We're going to spend much of the program today getting a range of reaction to last night's military strikes in Syria and trying to get a sense of what comes next. We'll start at the Pentagon, where officials are describing the attacks as precise, overwhelming and effective. The targets of American missiles were three chemical weapons facilities. NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman is with us now.

Tom, thanks so much for joining us.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Glad to be here.

MARTIN: Now first, the Pentagon said it has no indication the attack caused civilian casualties, but it didn't rule out that Syria's anti-aircraft defenses may have harmed people on the ground. Here's Marine Lieutenant General Frank McKenzie.


FRANK MCKENZIE: The Syrians shot 40 large missiles into the air last night. Those missiles came down somewhere, and so we should just recognize that's a part of this equation, too.

MARTIN: So, Tom, let me ask you about those 40 Syrian missiles. Did they or any other Syrian defenses prevent any part of this attack?

BOWMAN: No. Pentagon officials say no. And also, they say the U.S. - after - they said these Syrian missiles were launched after all of the missiles were fired by the U.S., France and Britain. A hundred and five missiles were fired by the three countries from aircrafts and warships. And, as you say, the targets were a research center in Damascus, chemical weapons storage facility and also a command center nearby. All were destroyed, according to the Pentagon. But he - the general raises a good point. Did any of these missiles fired by Syria actually land and maybe hurt some - or killed some civilians? We don't know.

MARTIN: I don't know - is that the whole of Syria's chemical weapons program? Why those three targets?

BOWMAN: Well, it's not the entire program. The Pentagon officials say the attacks significantly degraded - struck at the heart of Syria's chemical weapons capacity. But you're right. You know, some parts of the program remain. And officials say other targets could have been hit, but there was a concern about civilian casualties, so they decided not to. Now, this attack, we're told, was a one-time strike, but they say if Syria uses chemical weapons again, more attacks will come.

MARTIN: What about Syria's ally Russia, which has its own forces in the country?

BOWMAN: Well, Russia says Syria knocked down about three quarters of the cruise missiles. And again, the U.S. said that was not the case. Russia, Syria and Iran all decried what they called aggression by the U.S., said that it violated international law.

But Russia - here's what's interesting, Michel - Russia did get a sense from the U.S. that something was happening. That's because the two countries have what's called a deconfliction phone line to prevent accidents or mishaps with their military aircraft flying around the country. The U.S. told the Russians they would be operating in a certain airspace, but that was it - nothing about targets.

MARTIN: And finally, Tom, before we let you go, the president says this attack is a response to a chemical weapons attack last week. Both Syria and Russia deny that this happened. Can you tell us any more about what evidence the U.S. is relying on to justify the strike?

BOWMAN: Well, last night, Defense Secretary Mattis - I asked him about the evidence, and he really wouldn't say anything. And today, there was a background briefing at the White House, and they said the evidence includes photos on social media and eyewitness accounts.

Now, if the U.S. has any hard evidence like blood, tissue, soil samples, it isn't saying. And officials say it appears the chemical was chlorine used by Syria. They said there's strong evidence of that. But they're still not sure if the more lethal nerve agent sarin was used. And today, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons - their inspectors are investigating the site of the alleged attack. But here's the thing - the OPCW can only confirm a certain chemical was used. They cannot assign blame.

MARTIN: That was NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Tom, thank you.

BOWMAN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.