WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump on Saturday declared "Mission Accomplished" for a U.S.-led allied missile attack on Syria's chemical weapons program, but the Pentagon said the pummeling of three chemical-related facilities left enough others intact to enable the Assad government to use banned weapons against civilians if it chooses.
"A perfectly executed strike," Trump tweeted after U.S., French and British warplanes and ships launched more than 100 missiles nearly unopposed by Syrian air defenses. "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 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Bush addressed sailors aboard a Navy ship in May 2003 alongside a "Mission Accomplished" banner, just weeks before it became apparent that Iraqis had organized an insurgency that tied down U.S. forces for years.
The nighttime Syria assault was carefully limited to minimize civilian casualties and avoid direct conflict with Syria's key ally, Russia, but confusion arose over the extent to which Washington warned Moscow in advance. The Pentagon said it gave no explicit warning. The U.S. ambassador in Moscow, John Huntsman, said in a video, "Before we took action, the United States communicated with" Russia to "reduce the danger of any Russian or civilian casualties."
Dana W. White, the chief Pentagon spokeswoman, said that to her knowledge no one in the Defense Department communicated with Moscow in advance, other than the acknowledged use of a military-to-military hotline that has routinely helped minimize the risk of U.S.-Russian collisions or confrontations in Syrian airspace. Officials said this did not include giving Russian advance notice of where or when allied airstrikes would happen.
Russia has military forces, including air defenses, in several areas of Syria to support President Bashar Assad in his long war against anti-government rebels.
Russia and Iran called the use of force by the United States and its allies a "military crime" and "act of aggression." The U.N. Security Council met to debate the strikes, but rejected a Russian resolution calling for condemnation of the "aggression" by the three Western allies.
Trump's U.N. ambassador, Nikki Haley, told the session that the president has made it clear that if Assad uses poison gas again, "the United States is locked and loaded."
Assad denies he has used chemical weapons, and the Trump administration has yet to present hard evidence of what it says precipitated the allied missiles attack: a chlorine gas attack on civilians in Douma on April 7. The U.S. says it suspects that sarin gas also was used.
"Good souls will not be humiliated," Assad tweeted, while hundreds of Syrians gathered in Damascus, the capital, where they flashed victory signs and waved flags in scenes of defiance after the early morning barrage.
The strikes "successfully hit every target," White told reporters at the Pentagon. The military said there were three targets: the Barzah chemical weapons research and development site in the Damascus area, a chemical weapons storage facility near Homs and a chemical weapons "bunker" a few miles from the second target.
Although officials said the singular target was Assad's chemical weapons capability, his air force, including helicopters he allegedly has used to drop chemical weapons on civilians, were spared. In a U.S. military action a year ago in response to a sarin gas attack, the Pentagon said missiles took out nearly 20 percent of the Syrian air force.
As of Saturday, neither Syria nor its Russian or Iranian allies retaliated, Pentagon officials said.
The U.S.-led operation won broad Western support. The NATO alliance gave its full backing; NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said in Brussels that the attack was about ensuring that chemical weapons cannot be used with impunity.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel called the attack "necessary and appropriate."
In his televised address from the White House on Friday evening, Trump said the U.S. was prepared to sustain economic, diplomatic and military pressure on Assad until the Syrian leader 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 planned.
Asked about Trump's "Mission Accomplished" assertion, White said it pointed to the successful targeting of three Syrian chemical weapons sites. What happens next, she said, is up to Assad and to his Russian and Iranian allies.
Marine Lt. Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie, director of the Joint Staff at the Pentagon, said the allied airstrikes "took out the heart" of Assad's chemical weapons arsenal. He said the missiles hit the "sweet spot," doing the expected level of damage while minimizing the unintentional release of toxic fumes that could be harmful to nearby civilians.
When pressed, he acknowledged that some unspecified portion of Assad's chemical arms infrastructure was not targeted.
A former officer in Syria's chemical program, Adulsalam Abdulrazek, said Saturday the joint U.S., British, and French strikes hit "parts of but not the heart" of the program. He said the strikes were unlikely to curb the government's ability to produce or launch new attacks. Speaking from rebel-held northern Syria, Abdulrazek told The Associated Press there were perhaps 50 warehouses in Syria that stored chemical weapons before the program was dismantled in 2013.
A global chemical warfare watchdog group, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, said its fact-finding mission would go as planned in Douma.
WASHINGTON — The Republican National Committee has committed $250 million to a midterm election strategy that has one goal above all else: Preserve the party's House majority for the rest of President Donald Trump's first term.
Facing the prospect of a blue wave this fall, the White House's political arm is devoting unprecedented resources to building an army of paid staff and trained volunteers across more than two dozen states. The RNC is taking the fight to Senate Democrats in Republican-leaning states, but much of the national GOP's resources are focused on protecting Republican-held House seats in states including Florida, California and New York.
"Our No. 1 priority is keeping the House. We have to win the House," RNC political director Juston Johnson said. "That is the approach we took to put the budget together."
RNC officials shared details of their midterm spending plan with The Associated Press just as several hundred volunteers and staff held a day of action on Saturday in competitive regions across the country. The weekend show of force, which comes as Democrats have shown a significant enthusiasm advantage in the age of President Donald Trump, was designed to train 1,600 new volunteers in more than 200 events nationwide.
There were more than three dozen events in Florida alone, a state that features competitive races for the Senate, the governorship and a half dozen House races.
Seven months before Election Day, there are already 300 state-based staff on the RNC's payroll. The committee expects to have 900 total paid staff around the country — excluding its Washington headquarters — before November's election, Johnson said. The number of trained volunteers, he said, has already surpassed 10,000.
The strategy is expensive. And it carries risk.
The RNC's focus on a sophisticated field operation designed to identify and turn out key voters, an approach favored by former chairman Reince Priebus and expanded by Trump's hand-picked chairwoman, Ronna McDaniel, leaves the RNC with no additional resources to run advertising on television or the internet. It also puts tremendous pressure on the president and senior party leaders to raise money to fund the massive operation.
And few believe that even the best field operation could wholly neutralize the surge of Democratic enthusiasm on display in recent special elections, which has some Republican strategists fearing that the House majority may be lost already.
Democrats need to pick up at least 24 seats to take control of the House for the last two years of Trump's first term. They need just two seats to claim the Senate majority, though the map makes a Democratic Senate takeover much less likely.
An optimistic McDaniel said strong Republican fundraising has allowed the aggressive strategy. During the first year of Trump's presidency, the GOP set a fundraising record by raising more than $132 million.
"Our sweeping infrastructure, combined with on-the-ground enthusiasm for President Trump and Republican policies, puts us in prime position to defend our majorities in 2018," McDaniel said.
The $250 million price tag for what she described as a "permanent data-driven field program" is the committee's largest ground-game investment in any election season. The resources are focused in some unfamiliar territory, including several House districts in Southern California, which Johnson described as "a huge focus."
At a minimum, each targeted state features an RNC state director, a data director and at least a few staff devoted to each competitive House district. They are aggressively recruiting and training local volunteers to expand the GOP's presence in key communities.
The teams are larger in some states than in others.
In Florida, there are already 60 permanent field staff on the ground, Johnson said, including some dedicated to building relationships with the influx of Puerto Ricans who recently migrated from the hurricane-ravaged island. Johnson expects close to 150 paid staff on the ground in the state by Election Day.
And there are roughly two dozen paid staff already on the ground in Ohio and Nevada, he said. Both states feature competitive races for the House and Senate.
Nevada state director Dan Coats has been on the ground in the state for a year. He said the Nevada team already features directors for voter registration, volunteer training and strategic initiatives, which include Hispanic outreach.
"We're building a volunteer army that will be a turnkey operation for every Republican campaign up and down the ballot," Coats said. "A strong field game like the one we have here can and will make a difference."